Vive le Tour!
My inner cycling groupie has stepped out front and center. Not because I’m any good at riding a bike – I don’t even own one, and when I do ride, God forbid I should need to stop, turn, dismount, breathe, etc. – but because I love to watch it.
I only started watching the Tour de France two years ago, so I’m still learning. I’ve noticed, though, as I seek out other Tour fans, that a LOT of the general, non-cycling public has these and only these frames of reference for the Tour: 1) Lance Armstrong, 2) doping, and 3) skinny dudes with shaved legs in flashy outfits.
So, if you’re curious about the Tour but don’t care to watch NBC Sports for four-hour stretches, here’s the knowledge I’ve gleaned so far. If any aficionados are reading this, please correct me if necessary.
THE TOUR: This is its 99th year. The Tour starts around the beginning of July and lasts for 23 days. The first day is the “prologue”; you then have 20 “stages,” with two rest days sprinkled in. The course of the Tour changes every year, although certain stage courses do get repeated. The Tour always ends in Paris. The stage courses vary from flat terrain to mountains and don’t always stay in France – this year, for example, the Tour started in Belgium and included a foray into Switzerland. The length of each stage varies; this year’s Tour totals 3,497 kilometers. Residents along the stages express their Tour spirit like so:
THE TEAMS: There are 22 teams, each with nine riders. Rarely will a team’s riders all share the same nationality. Teammates support each other throughout the Tour, and generally work for the benefit of the team leader, a.k.a. the main star of the team. This year, Team Sky has two stars, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish, which is rare and being analyzed ad nauseam.
THE RIDERS: Most of the riders travel in a pack called the Peloton. Early in every stage there’s a “breakaway” or “escape,” consisting of a few bold riders – but the Peloton almost (almost) always catches up, and that stage’s top contenders take over. This changes for time trial stages, in which riders go one at a time, but there are only a couple of those per Tour. Important note: not every rider is trying to win the Tour. As stated above, most of them are working to support someone else. Raw deal, maybe, but they all know the situation, and some riders, known as “domestiques” (servants, fitting!) are renowned as invaluable helpers –George Hincapie and Jens Voigt, to name a couple.
THE JERSEYS: The jerseys work on a points system, and generally change hands several times throughout the Tour. The yellow jersey, or maillot jaune, goes to the overall points leader. Those aiming for the yellow are “GC” (General Classification) riders – those are the guys trying to win the Tour. The green jersey goes to the top sprinter. Sprinters know they won’t win the Tour, so they try to just win as many stages as possible, especially the flatter ones. Then there’s the polka-dot jersey, for the best climber, a.k.a. “King of the Mountain,” and the white jersey, for the best young rider. The GC riders and the sprinters typically get the most attention. Big GC names this year include defending champion Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins; big sprinter names include Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, and Peter Sagan.
THE COMMENTATORS: I have to mention Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. These guys have called the Tour de France for over a decade, and they’re a huge reason I love watching it. They not only discuss what’s going on during every stage, but provide really cool history and trivia about each stage’s towns, sights, and cycling in general. They banter with each other and aren’t afraid to openly criticize or show concern – when Phil says “Oh dear,” it ain’t good.
This year’s Tour lasts until July 22. Check it out; it’s more entertaining than you might think, and you might just be inspired to put on a flashy outfit, do a workout, and speak in a British accent.