The Chainlink

Tour de France for Newbz

By Brett Ratner

After one of the Tour de France stages last week, a fellow Chainlinker and good friend of mine asked me why André Greipel (from team Lotto-Belisol) won the stage, but Chris Froome (from Team Sky) was awarded the yellow jersey.

I provided a quick explanation and he suggested that a "Tour de France 101" article might be of interest to Chainlink readers.

I thought about it and he's right. While many Americans are practically bred to know the finer points of the West Coast Offense, our knowledge of one of the world's highest-profile sporting events unfortunately begins with Lance Armstrong and ends with the word "doping."

Cheering crowds along a steep mountainous climb makes for iconic Tour de France imagery.

Aerial views of medieval castles are another common site when watching a Tour broadcast.

In truth, winning a one-day road race at the WordTour level (let alone a 3-week grand tour) requires a dizzying amount of strategy, intuition, experience and teamwork. On top of that, it's one of the few sports where a competitor will find him or herself in situations where it's needed to WORK WITH a competitor. As such, there's more deal making, collusion and back stabbing in a road race than a Game of Thrones episode.

To the casual observer, it may seem like the main pack (better known as the peloton) is just cruising along. But in reality, there's a lot of strategy at play.

What I'm driving at is that the Tour de France is like a well-written novel, with subplots and plot twists that unfold over a three-week period. In other words, way too much to cover in one article (even if I could claim to understand it all, which I can't). So instead, here's a basic explanation that will allow you to follow the action and hopefully start to enjoy it as much as I've grown to over the past few years.

What is a Grand Tour?
A grand tour is a series of single-day events, with winners being chosen for the best performances over the course of the entire event. A grand tour will combine various road cycling disciplines. It will typically include an individual time trial, sometimes a team time trial, and of course mass-start, point-to-point road races.

The road race stages may vary in that some will feature flat terrain (which will naturally favor the powerful sprinters) and some are hilly or mountainous (which will favor lightweight climbers).

Cycling teams, like other sports, will be comprised of members who serve different roles. Some riders are good climbers, some are good sprinters, some are good time trialists, some are good all around. Regardless of the mix, there will be team leaders (who fight for the win) and riders who are there to support the leaders. Among their many roles, a primary role of a support rider is to block the wind for the leader so the leader can save energy for the latter part of the race.

How Does One Win a Grand Tour?
It's important to know that in a grand tour, there are multiple races going on simultaneously. And as such, there will be multiple winners. Therefore, different riders (and teams) show up with different sets of goals. The goals will vary based on the type of rider and/or the type of terrain that day. Here's an overview of the prizes up for grabs.

Yellow Jersey or "Maillot Jaune"
Awarded to the highest-placed rider in the general classification (or GC), this is worn by the rider who completes the entire tour in the least amount of time. This is generally regarded as the top prize in the tour. Since the award is time-based, it naturally favors riders who are good at climbing and time trialing. The reason for this is that on a flat stage, first and last place may be separated by seconds, whereas on a mountainous stage or a time trial, riders will typically cross the finish line separated by minutes.

Chris Froome (Team Sky) in good position to win his second Tour de France

White Jersey
This is essentially a version of the yellow jersey for young riders (26 and under). While 26 is approaching old in some sports, the cool thing about cycling in a grand tour is that it takes a level of intellect and experience that makes it rare for a younger rider to win. Typically the yellow jersey winners are closer to 30.

Green Jersey
Awarded for the highest placing rider in the points classification. Since the scoring of the Tour makes it practically impossible for a sprinter to hold the yellow jersey though the mountains and into Paris, this gives the sprinters something to win. In a nutshell, points are awarded for the first several riders crossing the finish line each day. There are also places on the course where riders can sprint for points.

Though he's on a different team this year, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff Saxo) continues his green jersey domination.

Polka Dot Jersey or "Maillot à Pois" (King of the Mountains)
Awarded for the highest placing rider in the mountains classification. Like the green jersey for sprinters, the polka dot jersey gives the pure climbers something to win. Here, points are awarded for the first several riders crossing mountaintop summits.

Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN Qhubeka) made history by being the first African rider to lead the mountains classification.

Going for Stage Wins
There's no jersey for this, but lots of riders show up with no intention other than to win individual stages. Naturally, time trial specialists will try to win the time trials. The elite sprinters will fight for wins on stages with flat terrain. Riders who excel in spring classics (such as Paris Roubaix) might snag wins on days with intermediate terrain. Pure climbers (and oftentimes the yellow jersey winners) will win stages in the mountains.

Other Prizes
The team with the lowest combined time gets an award. And oddly enough, there's an award for coming in dead last (without dropping out). This is known as the Lanterne Rouge. It's typically won by a support rider who does his job for the day and then finishes the stage under the time cut.

Tidbits that are Helpful to Know (and Enhance Your Enjoyment)

  • When people cross the finish line in a pack, they all get the same time. A rider only gets a better time if there is separation between the rider and the person behind him. This is another reason why the scoring system favors climbers and time trialists.

Long climbs like this string the peloton out, oftentimes putting minutes in between riders. Since the yellow jersey is based on time, the general classification naturally favors strong climbers.

  • Breakaways on flat stages rarely succeed. Those long breakaways consisting of 3-4 riders are often comprised of lesser-known riders from lesser teams. It's been said that a main purpose of the breakaway is to give TV exposure to the sponsors of the lesser teams. The main pack always knows how far ahead the breakaway is and knows when to reel them in so that the elite sprinters can go for the win. On rare occasion, a crash in the main field or other event can actually enable the breakaway to hold on for the win and it's super exciting. But typically, the flat stages are pretty boring until the final five kilometers (then they're awesome).

  • For a long time, the flat stages served to showcase the sprinters and the breakaways while giving the yellow jersey guys a chance to sit in the pack and recover a bit. They've been called "transition stages" for this reason. In recent years, organizers have been doing away with the traditional transition stages and instead making the non-mountain stages more technical and challenging. For example, running the pack along the oceanside where there's exposure to high winds, or throwing in cobblestone sections, or putting a series of short, nasty hills and/or treacherous curves before the finish. This not only makes the transition stages more interesting to watch, but also puts more pressure on the yellow jersey guys to be on point each day. All of which makes for better viewing.

Cobblestone sections and other features add interest (and sometimes carnage) to the stages on flat terrain.

  • The announcers make watching the Tour fun. Phil Liggett has been covering the Tour de France practically since the 1800s, and can't contain his excitement when a British rider is doing well. Paul Sherwen is a former tour pro (who loves to constantly remind the viewer of that fact). The only thing these two seem to know more about than cycling is the history of medieval castles (which you routinely see from aerial view to break up the monotony of several hundred guys pedaling in a pack for hours on end). New to the broadcast squad this year is Jens Voigt. He's a tour pro who retired last year and is one of the very, very few riders who could actually make a breakaway stick. He also coined the phrase "shut up legs" which makes perfect sense even though it doesn't.

OK, I hope this helps! Happy viewing!

PS, if you're having a hard time finding a way to watch the tour, you can visit http://tourdefrance.nbcsports.com/ to download the app. The app allows you to see every stage replay, provides results for each stage as well as overall results. If you have an Apple TV, you can project the video from your iPhone/iPad. 

About the Author

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Lady Jane on July 7, 2016 at 4:05pm

Prior to reading Brett's excellent summary, this short animated video, which includes a little bit of history, was my favorite recommendation to newbies trying to understand the TdF.  And the French accent lends a little je ne sais quoi, aussi.  http://www.wimp.com/the-tour-de-france-explained-in-animation/

Comment by Yasmeen on July 17, 2015 at 12:28pm

Teklehaimanot is my new favorite. Partially because I just love saying his name. 

Comment by Tom A.K. on July 17, 2015 at 12:25pm
"It's been said that, the main purpose of a breakaway by lesser- known riders from the lesser teams is to give tv exposure to the sponsors of the lesser teams. The main pack always knows how far ahead the breakaway is and knows when to reel them in so that the elite sprinters can go for the win."

So it's like any other sport, the sponsors get their due, and the same bunch of talented elites get their chance to get the win. But i still like watching the teamwork from the ('worker ants') support riders. Also the announcers are interesting and the television coverage and production for The Tour de France are excellent and a joy to watch, especially the countryside scenery with all the fans lining the route.

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