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How to Follow the Tour de France

The Tour de France is unquestionably the biggest and most popular cycling event, and for good reason. The race entails over 2200 miles of grueling mountain climbs, high-paced tempo speeds and blistering sprints over a three-week time period (usually 21 stages), requiring peak performance from some of the most fit and resilient athletes in the world. Although the route can vary from year to year, it always ends on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris. The Tour is an exciting and complex race, with a myriad of factors determining the outcome. For about three weeks, pretty much anything can happen (and usually does).

Due to the popularity and sheer scale of the race, the Tour is typically the only time of year that pro cycling gets such widespread public attention in the U.S. However, many of the details are not always clear to those not accustomed to following pro cycling. With a little basic knowledge of the fundamentals, the race becomes easier to understand and much more exciting to watch.

The Basics

The entire field of cyclists is called the peloton. Although it might seem like all the cyclists in the peloton are competing equally to win, riders actually work together in teams of 9 riders, with a total of 20 teams competing.

The General Classification, or GC, refers to the riders who have accumulated the least amount of time over the course of the race. The leader in the GC is marked with a yellow jersey ("Maillot Jaune"), the most prestigious award in cycling. The GC riders are considered to be the team leaders and are supported by their 8 teammates. Team support could include anything from pacing at the front to allow their leader to draft and conserve energy, to supplying wheels, to even providing their entire bike in the instance of a mechanical mishap. The team will do whatever they can to provide support for their leader.

Tour cyclists are classified into three primary categories based on their individual genetics, training and riding preference. Like most individual athletes on a sports team, pro cyclists have very refined and specialized cycling skills, catering to various duties, such as time-trials, mountain climbs and sprints. The most exceptional riders tend to excel in all disciplines. They are considered "all-rounders" and have the highest chances of winning.

  1. Time-trial (TT) riders specialize in racing at a steady, high-tempo pace. The TT stages are generally short, about 8 to 25 miles, and the riders race against the clock. Time-trial specialists are always perceived as good contenders for the overall GC because they have the ability to break away from the main field (peloton) and build large time gaps in the TT events. Their equipment is very aerodynamic, with features including narrow-profile handlebar extensions, disc wheels, and streamlined helmets. Time-trial riders have the ability to win individual stages by breaking away from the peloton in small groups, or even solo. They generally do not win field sprint finishes, but can provide excellent lead-outs for sprint specialists to draft behind and maximize their sprint speeds when they swing out for the finish.
  2. Climbers specialize in mountainous terrain. Their smaller, light-weight physiques provide an advantage when ascending a course. Climbers can be a factor in GC and are always contenders for mountain stage wins with their ability to ride away from the peloton in the mountains and put time between themselves and the field. Like time-trial specialists, climbers do not sprint well and are usually not contenders for field sprint finishes.
  3. Sprinters are built for speed and have a knack for hitting the finish line first in the flatter finishes. With drafting playing a key role in sprint tactics, look for these riders to swing out from about 5-10 places behind the leader within the final 1/8 - 1/4 mi before they hit the line. Although they are threats to winning individual stages, these riders are usually not contenders for the GC because there isn't much time between the sprint winner and the field. In fact, due to their inability to climb and time-trial well, many sprinters rely on time bonuses just to avoid being dropped from the race (there is a minimum time cut-off for stragglers) because they lose so much time in the mountains. Remember, the lowest accumulated time wins the general classification.

Jerseys-What they Represent

There are a number of jerseys awarded to participants throughout the Tour de France. These are awarded for specific reasons and identified by specific colors or patterns:

Yellow - Overall Race Leader (General Classification, or GC) with the lowest accumulated time. This jersey can change hands between riders after each stage, or stay with one rider over multiple stages. This is the most prestigious jersey and the rider wearing it to the finish line of the last stage in Paris is considered the winner of the Tour. It is possible for a rider to wear the yellow jersey, and ultimately, win the overall GC without ever winning an individual stage.

Green - Points Leader This is really a race within a race. There are markers within each stage where riders sprint toward and accumulate points. The rider with the most accumulated points after each stage dons a green jersey for the following stage

White with Red Polka Dots - Best Climber Similar to the points classification format, there are markers at the top of key climbs within each stage. Cyclists race to these markers and accumulate points. The rider with the most accumulated climbing points dons a polka dot jersey for the following stage.

White - Best young rider (under 25) Youngest rider with the lowest accumulated time (GC) dons a white jersey for the following stage.

Since the very first Tour de France in 1903, there is no question that the race has grown into one of the biggest sporting events in the world. With 200 cyclists racing over 2200 miles throughout France, fans come from all over the world to line the streets as the peloton passes through on their way to Paris. This primer of Tour basics should get you started. Enjoy the race!

Tour de France Resources:

VeloNews Tour site

Tour de France Live Tracker