Tour de France for dummies: a beginner’s guide

Tour de France for dummies - beginner's guide

Around this time of the year, the Tour de France keeps popping up in my conversations with non-cycling friends. Despite how little someone knows or cares about cycling, everyone’s at least heard of Le Tour.

At first, it surprised me how little people know about the Tour de France. Basic concepts like “how do you win?” aren’t commonly understood. I guess keen cyclists who live and breathe the sport take that stuff for granted. It can be confusing to the uninitiated.

With that in mind, here’s a simple explanation of the Tour de France for non-cyclists, presented in a FAQ format. I’ll strip out as much of the jargon and complexity as I can, keeping strictly to the basics. After reading this, anyone will be able to follow what’s going on in the race, at least at a rudimentary level.

Here is a beginner’s guide to watching and understanding the Tour—a “Tour de France for dummies”.

What is the Tour de France?

The Tour de France is an annual bike race that goes for three weeks. It takes place mainly in France, but often traverses into other countries. For example, this year’s race starts in Belgium. It always finishes in Paris.

How do you win the Tour de France?

The Tour is made up of 21 separate “stages“; one stage per day. Think of each stage as a standalone race.

In each stage, all of the riders start at Point A and ride to Point B. The first person to reach Point B wins that stage and gets a prize. The next day, everyone starts at Point C and races to Point D, and so on. Winning a stage is a big deal in itself. It can be a career-defining moment for some cyclists.

But how does one win the whole Tour de France? It’s decided by time. You add up the time each rider takes to finish each stage. Whoever finishes all 21 stages in the lowest cumulative time wins the overall Tour de France—also known as winning the “General Classification“.

Who rides in the Tour de France?

The race is contested by professional teams. Riders represent their team, not their nation.

The Tour de France is for men only. Currently, there is no equivalent race for women.

This year, there are 22 teams of 8 riders each, meaning 176 riders will start the Tour de France. However, there can only be one winner—despite being a team sport, the Tour is won by an individual. Their teammates help them along the way by using tactics, sacrificing their own interests to help that individual to win.

There are tactics? Don’t you just ride as hard as you can?

Nope, it’s much more interesting than that!

Because of air resistance, you save a lot of energy when cycling behind another rider. If you simply rode as hard as you could from Point A to Point B, a competitor could just ride behind you (in your draft) waiting for you to get tired before overtaking you. Across three weeks of hard racing, saving energy is very important.

Cyclists in a line slipstreaming each other during a race.
Riding behind someone, in their draft, saves you a lot of energy.

That’s where team tactics come in. Among the 176 starters, only a handful are strong enough to have a realistic chance of winning the General Classification. The rest will have different goals. Some will be trying to win a stage, some will try to win one of the other sub-competitions (more on that later), while the rest ride as teammates to help their team leader achieve their goals.

A common tactic, for example, is to ride in front of your team leader, taking the wind for them so they save energy. That’s why you’ll often see long rows of teammates riding in a line. Another example of teamwork is fetching water bottles for your teammate.

How does terrain affect the race?

Some stages cover flat roads. Others are a little hilly. Some are downright mountainous.

Flat stages tend to end in a bunch sprint, with a huge mass of riders rushing at the line together. This is because of the aforementioned air resistance: on a flat road, it’s easy to sit behind other riders, so it’s very hard to escape from the big bunch of riders (called the “peloton”). Flat courses favour “sprinters”—bigger riders who can put out a lot of power in the final few hundred metres of a stage.

Hilly and mountainous stages can end with a small group or even just a lone individual reaching the finish line first. On climbs, aerodynamics plays a smaller role, so heavier riders can get dropped from the peloton before the finish, leaving only the lighter, fitter riders in contention.

Why is there always a small group up ahead?

Tour de France for dummies: a breakaway up the road ahead of the main peloton.
A breakaway up the road, ahead of the main peloton.

Although everyone starts together at Point A, a few riders will try to break away from the peloton early on. They may do this for one of many reasons, such as:

  • They are bad at sprinting, so breaking away early is their best chance of winning the stage.
  • They want to get TV exposure for their team’s sponsors.
  • By getting up the road, they force other teams to chase while their own teammates rest within the peloton.

Sometimes, riders in the peloton will react, chasing hard to bring those riders back into the bunch before they get too far away.

Since it’s such a long race, nobody has the energy to keep accelerating and chasing forever. As a result, eventually the action settles down with a “breakaway” group of riders ahead and everyone else in the main peloton behind. The main drama of the stage is to see whether or not the peloton can organise a chase to gradually reel in the breakaway before the finish.

Sometimes, the breakaway manages to stay away all the way to the end of the stage. The winner outsprints their breakaway companions close to the finish or is strong enough to ride away beforehand.

What are these stages where they ride one at a time?

There are a few special stages where, instead of all starting together a Point A, the riders start one by one. These are called “individual time trials”. Each rider rides that stage alone and against the clock. There is no drafting and no teamwork. The person who completes that stage in the shortest time wins the stage. Certain riders tend to do well in time trials because of their physiology.

A cyclist during an individual time trial

There is a similar stage called a “team time trial”. Each team starts at Point A as a group of eight riders. There is drafting within the individual riders of the same team, but no drafting between teams. The team that covers the course in the shortest time wins that stage.

What does it take to win the Tour de France?

It’s very difficult. Winning the Tour de France is the pinnacle of our sport.

To do it, you must be strong across all kinds of stages and terrains. In particular, you must be able to climb mountains well and ride a strong time trial. Otherwise, you will lose too much time to your rivals across the three weeks.

Flat stages are less important to the General Classification because riders can comfortably ride in the protection of the main peloton and won’t lose any time (noting that, for safety reasons, riders who finish a stage in the same group are given the same time, regardless of whether you were at the front of the group or at the back).

If you are a genuine contender to win the General Classification, your team’s plan for most of the race will be to save your energy. This will leave you fresh and ready to gain time on your rivals at key points of the race, such as on mountain climbs or in the time trials, where aerodynamics are less of a factor.

Consistency is key. Three weeks is a long time, and mishaps like crashes or mechanical incidents can ruin a contender’s chance of winning the Tour de France. So you’ll need a little luck, too.

What’s the prize for winning?

The person who is leading the General Classification during the race wears the famous yellow jersey, the maillot jaune.

The overall winner earns the right to wear the yellow jersey after the final stage. They also get a trophy and prize money of 500,000 euros, though in practice the money is shared among the winner’s team.

What are the other special prizes and jerseys?

As well as the General Classification and winning stages, there are several sub-competitions within the Tour de France that some riders will be targeting as their goals.

Tour de France jerseys for dummies.
(Left-right, top-bottom): Yellow jersey, green jersey, polka-dot jersey, white jersey, red numbers for most aggressive, yellow numbers for teams classification. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Points Classification

Throughout the Tour, riders can earn points for placing highly on stages and at intermediate sprint points. At the end, the rider with the most points wins the points competition.

Time is irrelevant in this competition. The winner of the points classification is usually a sprinter, as they can usually place highly in all the flat stages (despite losing many minutes of time on the mountainous stages).

The leader of the points classification wears the green jersey.

King of the Mountains (KOM) CLASSIFICATION

Throughout the race, there are “classified climbs” where points are awarded to the first few riders who reach the top of the climb. The rider with the most KOM points at the end of the Tour de France wins this competition.

Often, this classification is won by a rider who is good at climbing uphill and gets in a lot of breakaways to collect KOM points before the peloton arrives.

The leader of the KOM classification wears the polka-dot jersey.

Young riders classification

This is won by the best-placed rider on the General Classification under the age of 26. The leader wears the white jersey.

Most aggressive prize (most combative)

This is a subjective prize awarded after each stage. A panel of judges decide which rider was the most aggressive and exciting during that stage. Usually, it goes to someone in the breakaway. The judges tend to favour French riders.

As well as cash prize, that rider gets to wear special red race numbers during the next stage.

At the end of the Tour de France, the judges decide who was the most aggressive rider over the whole race. That person wins the “super-combativity” prize.

Teams classification

The team classification is calculated by adding up the times of the three best-placed riders from each team per stage. The three riders can be different from stage to stage; it’s just the three riders from your team who happened to cross the line first on each given stage.

The team with the lowest cumulative time wins this classification. The leading team wears special yellow numbers during the race.

Lanterne Rouge

This isn’t an official prize, but the rider who finishes the Tour de France in last place on General Classification is called the “lanterne rouge” (red lantern). This sounds easy enough on paper, but the key requirement is that you have to actually finish every stage of the Tour. If you crash and end up in hospital, you’re out of the race entirely.

Oh, and did I mention there’s a time limit? On every stage, there is a time limit calculated based on a percentage of the stage winner’s time. If you are unable to complete the stage within that time, you are kicked out of the race.

So, merely finishing the Tour de France is a pretty big achievement in its own right.

Conclusion

The Tour de France is the world’s biggest bike race and the biggest annual sporting competition.

Now, when you change channels to SBS this July, you’ll know enough to follow the action. Armed with this knowledge, you can appreciate the drama and excitement of what otherwise looks like just a bunch of oddly-dressed men trundling across France.

Or, I guess, you could always watch it for the scenery.

Know a friend who’s clueless about the Tour de France? Share this article with them so they can begin to love this incredible event!

Yellow jersey and green jersey images by Malo95. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Yellow numbers, red numbers, polka-dot jersey and white jersey images by IIVQ - Tijmen Stam. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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