Monday, July 11, 2005

What's the Tour de France all about?

Someone new to the Tour de France asked on one of my email lists what it was all about. It's not easy to understand at first glance! Here's how I responded - my Quick 'n' Dirty TdF Guide:

It's a race series that goes on for 3 weeks, comprised of daily stages of varying lengths and terrains that circumnavigates France. The riders all work together in teams. Usually the team is a combination of sprinters and mountain specialists that support an all-around guy who is hoping to win or place well in the all-around competition. The "General Classification" (GC) is the all-around prize, that Lance Armstrong won 6 times and will probably win again. The leader in the GC wears the yellow jersey. They score the GC based on how much aggregate time each rider is behind the winner, from adding up all the daily stages.

There are other competitions going on simultaneously, to keep it interesting for everyone.
  1. Daily stage winners: First across the finish line each day
  2. Mountain climbing (polka-dot jersey) based on fastest times to the summits of designated peaks along the way
  3. Sprinter (all green jersey) based on aggregate points to designated sprinting lines along the way (intermediate points in each stage and the finish line)

If the whole bunch (the "peloton") finishes a stage en masse, they award all the riders in the peloton the same time so there won't be a massive sprint of 100 bikes to the line, just for safety's sake.

Every rider is scored every day by a time behind the first finisher of the stage (stage winner). Their aggregate time for all the days to date added up determines their individual placement in the General Classification (GC = overall/yellow jersey competition).

There's some other little wrinkles - for example, on one of the stages they have a team time trial where the team goes out on a course on their own and the first 5 riders of the team all get the same score for that day when they cross the finish line - but that's an exception, only happens once per Tour de France.

The riders are each members of corporate-sponsored teams (Discovery Channel, T-mobile communications, bakeries, hearing aid companies, cement companies, you name it) and signed (usually) to multiple-year contracts to them. Yes, many riders out of the field of 180+ are there in the race solely with the job of being support guys for the contender for the yellow jersey (GC/overall). These are often called "domestiques" = servants. Some are even on the team to serve as support people for guys in contention for the sprinter's awards or mountain climbers awards. They do things like lead out the contender guy, protect him from interference, bring him water bottles, etc. This is an honorable role and many of these riders are great cyclists in their own right - and they will win other races during the year, but they are hired knowing that in the Tour de France they will serve a supporting role to the superstar all-around contender rider.

The whole team is coordinated by a manager who usually rides in a car at the back of the peloton all day and screams instructions to all the riders on his own team through radio earpieces they all wear.

On most long (100+ mile) daily stages most of the riders stay together in a group (=peloton) because it's MUCH easier and saves MUCH energy (30%+) to ride in someone's slipstream. But sometimes one or a small group of riders will break away and dash out in front, hoping to gain a stage win or extra points for sprinting. If they are not riders in contention for the overall award (a couple of domestiques out for some publicity for the team that day) the guys like Lance will let them go, because they are not really his competitors and are no threat to him. However, Lance and his team would NEVER let an actual contender get away from the peloton and get ahead, because he could then become a threat. So Lance and his team usually ride up in near the front of the peloton most days to keep an eye on the breakaways, to chase down any that might be a threat to him, and also to stay out of trouble if anyone crashes.

The ticker on the TV (min:sec) that you see shows an estimate of how many minutes ahead of the peloton a breakaway group is located. There's also a guy that rides on a motorcycle with a chalkboard ("Chalkboard man") with the time gap estimate and shows it to the riders too as they go along. Most of the time the guys riding in the front of the peloton will chase down and swallow up these little breakaway groups before they get to the finish line, but not always.

As the greatest bike race in the world, it's followed so closely by millions of fans in Europe and all around the world that "merely" coming across the finish line first and winning a stage on a single day gains a rider much fame and fortune, so every day is hotly contested.

I hope that clears things up a little instead of confusing it more!! Readers, feel free to add any other salient points in the Comments!

Oh yeah, one thing I should add: The Lanterne Rouge (main subject of this blog) is the traditional term for the last-placed rider in the overall standings - the red light on the caboose of the great Tour de France train.

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Great description! It's so exciting because there is so much strategy - most people think of cycling as 1 guy trying to be the fastest.

The only thing I would point out is that because it's tough to stay in peak shape for an entire season, on race's lead guy will happily work as a domestique at a different time of year. (The racers on a team hit their peak form at different times to win the most races for the team). Lance does so happily, knowing his guys will help him out come July.

So it's a lot more of a team sport than a lot of people think it is.
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