So what is the Tour de France?
The Tour de France is a three week bike race that circles the country of France. It includes flat stages, rolling stages, mountain climbs and time trials. It is the most famous and prestigious bike race in the world.
How long has it been around?
The Tour was first run in 1903. It has been run every year since, except for periods from 1915 to 1919 (due to World War I) and 1940 to 1946 (due to World War II).
How do they determine a winner?
The winner of the general classification (GC) is regarded as the overall winner of the Tour de France. In essence, the riders start every stage together, but they don’t finish every stage together. Their finish times are added into an overall time and the rider with the lowest overall time at the end is the winner of the Tour. Put simply, the rider that gets through the Tour the fastest, wins. Since time gaps are more pronounced on mountain stages and time trials, winners will usually be proficient at either of those disciplines (ideally, both.)
How do we know who’s leading?
The leader of the Tour gets to wear a yellow jersey, differentiating him from the other riders and the other members of his team.
Wait, TEAM? I thought this was an individual race?
Well, it is and it isn’t. See, the Tour admits about 20 teams every year. These teams consist of 9 riders each. Generally, each team works in support of its best rider. This support comes in the form of riding in front to protect him from the wind, pacing him on climbs and allowing him to save energy by letting him “draft” off them. It can even extend to bringing food and water or giving up their own bikes if the team leader has a mechanical problem.
Don’t these guys on the team want to win, too?
In their heart of hearts, yeah, they probably do. But the team leader is the team leader for a reason: he’s better than you. The team’s goal is to rally around their best rider and a win for him is a win for everybody.
So, every team is out to win the Tour?
Not necessarily EVERY team. Some teams don’t have a strong GC rider available to them, so they’ll focus on their sprinters and try to pick up stage wins. The support role is essentially the same, but you’ll get a different type of crew if you’re trying to win flat stages rather than mountain stages.
What do they do in time trials?
If it’s a team time trial, where they all ride together and get essentially the same time, then it works exactly the same. If it’s an individual time trial, everyone’s on their own. It’s why the time trial is referred to as The Race of Truth.
Do you have to be good at BOTH time trials and climbing to win?
It helps. If you’re only truly great at one, then you should be at least competent in the other. Riders who specialize in the time trial will often try to limit their time losses on climbing stages. And vice-versa for climbing specialists. If, however, you can master both disciplines, you become a formidable Tour rider. Current champ Chris Froome is a prime example of this.
Is the yellow jersey the only one you can win in the Tour?
It’s the most prestigious, but it’s not the only one. There’s also the green jersey (the sprinter’s jersey), the polka dot jersey (King of the Mountains) and the white jersey (best young rider). We’ll discuss what those mean in another column.
Is the Tour de France the only one of its kind?
No. It’s the oldest and most prestigious, but it’s not the only Grand Tour. The Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) and the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain) are similar in length and combine mountain stages and time trials.
So there are other, shorter tours as well?
Yep. Some of the major ones: The Tour Down Under (run in January and traditionally the kickoff to the cycling season), Paris-Nice (a week-long tour in March where we generally see the major Tour contenders take their first ride of the season), the Tour of California (run in May and also a stop for some Tour contenders), the Criterium du Dauphine (a week-long tour in June and one of the major warm up races for Tour contenders) and the Tour de Suisse (the Tour of Switzerland, which overlaps the Criterium and is another major tune up race for the Tour.) And there’s a handful of prestigious one day events, such as Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Leige, Giro di Lombardia and the World Road Race Championships.
Where can I watch the Tour?
If you’ve got cable, the NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus, formerly the Outdoor Living Channel) provides daily coverage of the Tour. If you’re a cord cutter, you can still get NBC Sports Network through Sling TV OR you can purchase an NBC Sports Gold Cycling Package and watch it on your computer or mobile device. The package costs about $40 and it’s good for a year. It provides not only Tour coverage, but coverage of the Vuelta a Espana, the Tour Down Under, Paris-Nice, the Tour of California, the Criterium and the Tour de Suisse. If you develop an interest in cycling beyond just the Tour, it’s a pretty good deal.
What are some of the major stages to look for on the Tour this year?
The opening stage, a short individual time trial, may give you a small clue as to what kind of form the contenders and their teams are in. While the time gaps probably won’t be significant (probably no more than 30-40 seconds in most cases), if the Tour is close, every second will count.
Stage 5, ending at the ski station La Planche des Belles Filles is the first tough climb of the Tour and the first summit finish (i.e. it comes at the end of a climb). This will be the first stage to really shake out the contenders.
Stage 8, another climbing stage, might be tricky, but Stage 9, which starts with a couple tricky climbs and THEN goes into the mountains will be a beast.
Stage 13 will be a comparatively short, but mountainous stage. An aggressive climber might be rewarded. Stage 18, finishing with a climb up the famed Col d’Izoard, comes after a mountainous Stage 17 and will the final chance for the climbers to make their mark.
Stage 20 is a longer individual time trial and the last competitive stage of the Tour. We’ll know who’s going to be standing atop the podium in Paris when it’s all done.
So who’s going to win?
Well, it’s a long three weeks with a ton of twists and turns and unexpected events. Sometimes, you don’t have a clear picture of the winner until the final competitive stage. But we’ll cover the contenders in tomorrow’s column.
JOE DAVIS is the main character in a series of mystery novels by Randall J. Funk. Mr. Davis and Mr. Funk are delighted by the shocking similarities in their opinions and writing styles.