The football fan’s guide to the Tour de France

It’s over. At least for the next four years, football is taking a European detour on its long journey home (2022 anyone?) as the England squad take the short flight back from Russia. In France meanwhile, 170 professional cyclists are embarking on the 3 week Tour de France – the pinnacle of the cycle racing calendar.

The Tour de France (known also as Le Tour) is the most famous of the 3 Grand Tours (alongside the earlier Giro d’Italia and the later Vuelta a España) made infamous in the early-2000s by way of Lance Armstrong’s 7 consecutive victories (since scrubbed from the record). If you’re looking for your next sporting fix, there couldn’t be a better time to join the ranks of the lycra-clad and I’ve put together this convenient summary to help get you started with the world’s best known cycle race.

The Grand Tours are stage races, contested by professional cycling teams. The Tour is split in to 21 daily stages with an average length of around 170km making for a 3,500km total. It’s not a contiguous route, meaning that riders will often have to travel between the end of one stage and the start of another and the stages themselves come in a variety of formats. To add to the confusion, there are a number of different prizes up for grabs (referred to as Jerseys, a reference to the coloured jerseys worn by the respective leaders) and most teams are focused on winning just one or two. For the 2018 race the teams consist of 8 riders.

The Jerseys:

  • The Yellow Jersey – General Classification

    The yellow jersey is recognised as the symbol of the Tour. To win the Tour de France means to win the overall yellow jersey and it is worn by the leader of the General Classification (GC). In other words, the rider that’s taken the least total amount of time to complete the stages so far. On the morning of each stage, the rider with the smallest elapsed time wears yellow for the day. After the final stage, the overall winner of the yellow jersey is the rider with the smallest total elapsed time. Pretty straightforward. The riders to watch this are reigning champ, four time winner and favourite Chris Froome, teammate Geraint Thomas, Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Tom Dumoulin.

    Lance Armstrong relaxing with all 7 of his yellow jerseys shortly before all 7 of his yellow jerseys were taken away following his doping admission and refusal of the UCI to believe in miracles

  • The Green Jersey – Points Classification

    Points are awarded for being the first 10 riders who finish a stage (more points are awarded on the flat stages in comparison to the mountains) with additional points available for the first 10 riders to pass the intermediate sprint point during the stage. The rider with the largest number of points at the start of the day wears the green jersey, with the eventual winner being the rider with the most points at the end of the race. The fast men this year include current world road race champion Peter Sagan, Arnaud Démare, André Greipel, Fernando Gaviria, Dylan Groenewegen and Alexander Kristoff.

  • The Polkadot Jersey – Mountain Classification

    Similar to the Points Classification, being one of the first 10 riders to summit the categorised climbs on the course will earn points towards the Mountain Classification and the right to wear the red-spotted jersey as King of the Mountains. Frenchman Warren Barguil won the jersey in 2017 and has set his sights on it this year but with questionable form so far this season, any of the other GC contenders could have a swing at it if their GC hopes fade.

  • The White Jersey – Young Rider Classification

    Similar mechanics to the yellow jersey but only contested by riders that are 26 or under.

A few other prizes exist including the team prize (like the GC except for the whole team) and the combativity award given to the rider judged to be the most combative by a panel of 8 judges.

The stages

The stages of the Grand Tours are either point to point races with mass starts (categorized as either flat, hilly or mountainous) or time trials. Each type favours a different rider physiology and require different strategies for victory.

  • Flat stages

    The first half of the tour consists typically of either flat or hilly stages. They’re often longer than the mountain stages but don’t involve the long alpine climbs that characterise the latter half of the tour. The action in these stages follows a consistent pattern and these stages favour the fast men – the heavier, stronger sprinters who have the ability to race all day and then produce the explosive power needed to win the final dash to the line.

    After a rolling start, a number of riders will typically ride from the main group of riders (the peloton) and spend the remainder of the stage ‘in the breakaway’, ahead of the main group of riders. A considerable time gap of 5-10 minutes is not unusual and typically only in the last 50-100km of the race will the peloton begin to close the gap (the breakaway can be chased more aggressively if it contains a number of riders from the same team or if the quality of the breakaway riders are high and they are deemed to have a good chance of reaching the finish first).

    The physics of cycling mean that the most efficient way to cover the course is in a group. Compared to a solo rider, a rider in the peloton will use about a third less energy at the same speed. Setting aside the increased risk of a crash when cycling at high speed in very close proximity to others, once aroused the peloton will typically close the gap with the breakaway at a rate of a minute for every 10km of course – at a distance of 30km before the finish, a breakaway needs at least a 3 minute time gap to have a chance of reaching the line before the peloton. This negative feedback loop encourages riders to work together in groups instead of making constant solo attacks and this adds a cooperative dynamic that explains why the peloton looks so relaxed as riders disappear up the road ahead.

    Physics usually prevails and almost always the breakaway is caught in the closing few kilometers of a stage. The exhausted breakaway riders are subsumed by the mass of whirling thighs as the sprinters and their teammates jostle for position. In the run up to the line at the end of a flat stage it’s not uncommon to see speeds in excess of 60km/h. Crashes are frequent as the sprinters battle their way to the front of the peloton while staying out of the wind to preserve energy for the final blast. In the last 500 meters of the stage, any remaining strength is channelled to the rear wheel as the sprinters try to launch their attacks at the perfect moment. Go too soon and the other riders will sit on your tail before counterattacking with fresher legs. Too late and you’ll be left in the dust as the winners cross the line ahead of you. Barring crashes, strong crosswinds or difficult course conditions, most riders on the road will be able to keep up with the peloton and finish as part of the main group. To discourage dangerous mass sprints, all riders in a group are given the finishing time of the group leader.
    Be sure to mute the sound but some good examples of positioning and tactics in the sprint finish can be seen here

  • Mountain stages

    Towards the second half of Le Tour, the road heads for the sky as the course winds through the Alps and Pyrenees. In a fast sprint on a flat course, wind resistance is the enemy and the winners are the strong riders that can push the most power in the most aerodynamic position. In the mountains, weight trumps aerodynamics and raw power. The top climbers are those with the best power-to-weight ratio and this favours the smallest, leanest riders. Unsustainably low levels of bodyfat are the norm and riders talk of a delicate balancing act between lightness and staying healthy in the quest for performance.

    Whereas on the flat stages the climbers are able to stick with the peloton to the finish line (and thus avoid losing time in the General Classification), in the mountains it’s a different story. For example in the 2017 edition of the race, sprinter Marcel Kittel dominated the first half with a number of sprint victories. Stage 13 of the race ran through the mountains from Saint-Girons to Foix and on that day Kittel finished in 167th place, losing 21 minutes to the stage winner Warren Barguil. So brutal are the mountain stages for the heavier riders that they can struggle to make the time cutoff for the stage, let alone keep up with the climbing specialists.

    Getting dropped spells disaster for the climbing cyclist. Seeing your competition ride up the mountain ahead of you is a psychological blow and riders require extreme mental toughness to stay focused and avoid losing time. Riders that are in poor physical form going in the mountains struggle to regain form in the punishing conditions and can crack (losing large amounts of time to their rivals) or end up withdrawing from the race altogether. One of the more infamous examples from the Tour de France can be seen here. As per Tour etiquette, riders wait for the yellow jersey to rejoin the group before pushing on, only to witness a crushing counterattack.

    Those hoping to win the yellow jersey have to be superlight climbers par excellence, such is the potential to lose time on the unforgiving slopes. You may not like it but at least when it comes to winning Grand Tours, this really is what peak performance looks like:

    Peak performance

  • Time trials

    Time Trials (TTs) come in both individual and team flavours. It’s a race against the clock with riders or teams starting at one minute intervals on a course that typically takes around an hour to complete. Team efforts require great skill and coordination between team riders while individual TT efforts are regarded as the purest test of strength for a bicyclist. Adopting uncomfortable positions on futuristic looking bicycles, the courses are fast and technical and crashes happen as riders push the limits to gain an edge.

    The total number of time trial miles varies with each edition of the race and in 2018 there is an individual and a team TT stage. In recent years The Tour has typically started with a short prologue TT to determine the first rider to wear the yellow jersey but this has been omitted for 2018. The courses are typically flat or rolling (the 2004 individual time trial on L’Alpe Du Huez being both an interesting exception and a glorious showcase of the power of the biologically enhanced cyclist) and TT specialists stand to gain valuable seconds against less well prepared riders. To be in the running for the yellow jersey, riders have to be competent time trialists – the wisdom being that whilst a strong TT performance isn’t enough to win the tour, a poor effort or a crash can easily lose it.

    Team BMC doing their thing in the 2018 Tirreno-Adriatico Team TT

The lore, customs and etiquette of the Tour are rich and varied, more so than could ever be covered in one piece. The complex dynamics within teams, between rival team leaders and amongst the riders in a group lead to highly tactical racing in which cooperation is the only way to win. As a whole it is a little bit more complicated than the offside rule but hopefully this has given you some insight in to the high speed blur of muscle and carbon currently gracing ITV4.

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