Thanks to Trev for helping me remember some of the details. All remaining errors are mine.
(Australian time) begins the hundredth edition of the Tour de France. I’m a bit of a cycling fan, and I’ll be up most evenings watching SBS’s wonderful live stream, and trawling Cycling Central’s twitter feed. While talking with my housemate this week, it struck me that while the SBS crew make for great commentary, there are some very, very basic things that can make the Tour a bit more intelligible. For those who might not know, here are some things that helped me parse the action.
The Tour is Not One Race
The Tour de France (hereafter, TDF) is a big event. If you aren’t familiar with the vaunted yellow jersey, or maillot jaune, the TDF consists of 21 stages over three weeks. The winner of the general classification (GC) is the rider who is the rider is fastest over the whole tour. Throughout, the leader of the GC section at any given stage is given a yellow jersey.
But the TDF has many more races that go on, and they all have their excitement:
- The “King of the Mountain” stage (the polka dot jersey), in which the first riders to cross a significant hill climb gain points, the winner being the one with the greatest number of points at the end of the TDF;
- The points classification (the green jersey) involves gaining points for finishing different classes of stage, or reaching particular checkpoints along the stage (“intermediate sprints”), the first to cross the line getting the most points;
- The young rider classification (the white jersey) is the under 26’s version of the GC;
- The team race, which is based on the aggregate of the fastest three riders for each team for each stage.
- There is also the prix de combative, which is awarded to the most aggressive and animated rider for the stage. They get a red number plate for their jersey.
Finally, individual stage wins are worthy of competition for riders in their own right. Simply winning a stage of the TDF is its own prize, and so riders will compete with each other for the honour of crossing the finish line first.
So if you are trying to work out what the hell is going on, remember that you aren’t watching one race, but many. Tactics differ between races—climbers hang back on the flat stages, the GC contenders don’t come out to play until later stages, and so on. The structure of the race varies wildly over the TDF, so if it seems as if there is a completely different race happening every day, you are more or less correct.
The peleton (French for platoon) is the main body of riders. My housemate, Pete, wondered—why do people ride that close to each other at speed?
First, riding in the peleton can save you about 40% of your power. This is why the “breakaway”—a rider or group that leave the safety of the peleton to get ahead in the race (marked on SBS as “tete de la course”)—is signifiant, and any “chase” group who pursues them more so. Leaving the group exposes you to the elements and extra work, and over 3,403km that’s a huge cost. That’s why you’ll notice that breakaways are rarely consistent in their membership across stages, and when they are it is a big deal because someone is throwing down.
Second, controlling the peleton means controlling the race—this is where the teams come in. When you lead the peleton you can slow the pack so your rider in the breakaway can make their getaway. Or you can speed it up to tire others. It can mean boxing someone in, or expelling them from the pack. It can even be about spite (see below, “Politics, not Pedalling”).
Watching the peleton can be entertaining; watch how the riders position themselves, and listen to the commentators talk about the peleton in relation to the rest of the TDF.
Just Head for the Mountains
If you don’t watch the whole TDF, just watch the mountain stages. Stages 7,8,9,18, 20, and 21 (dates here). They are exciting, beautiful to watch, and involve the most jostling and challenging between the riders. The mountains are (often) where the TDF gets made.
All the Pretty Shiny Things
Western Europe is beautiful in the summer, and this alone makes the TDF worth watching. The SBS feed includes a cooking segment, where chef Gabriel Gaté follows the TDF and looks at the traditional fare of the region the stage. It is a lot of fun.
The TDF cruises through some serious history. It is fun just to sit and watch the countryside roll by, and Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are great to listen to. They are really knowledgable about the TDF, its history, and the history of the scenery through which the TDF passes. They even know a lot about the wine and beer made in the regions.
Politics, not Pedalling
Ultimately, professional cyclists are a high-strung, cranky, and melodramatic lot. Road racing is full of politics and tantrums, and you’ll see people ejected from breakaways, alliances made, betrayals, and more. TDF makes for amazing reality TV: a highly talented group of people competing against each other in a ludicrous challenge, complete with mini-competitions, entertaining support characters, and a prize at the end. It is full of fevered egos and controversy.
Vive le Tour!