Coral’s Beginners’ guide to the Tour de France
Miles Crosby | July 5, 2015
When the 102nd Tour de France cycle race starts on the fourth of July, it will be the beginning of a three week journey covering over 2,000 miles for almost 200 riders. However, despite its prestigious reputation and the fast growing popularity of cycling in the UK, for many people the Tour de France remains a mystery. A week before the race starts, Coral’s beginners’ guide should hopefully make everything clear.
This year’s route will be 2,087 miles, the same as driving from Newcastle to Moscow. The distance is covered in 21 stages of varying lengths which, forgetting two short ‘time trail’ stages (more on these later), are generally around 100 miles in length. These stages can be flat all day or go up and down or finish atop mountains, involving hours of cycling uphill.
The 21 stages will be covered in 23 days, with only two rest days to give the riders respite from the non-stop racing. The cyclists will roar through the French countryside at an average speed of 25mph, often going much faster and hitting speeds in excess of 60mph when going downhill.
They race together as a big bunch, or pack, called a peloton. This is because it easier to cycle in the slipstream of another rider; the first rider pushes the air out of the way and the others follow behind, a process know as drafting. By rotating the cyclists at front, a peloton can maintain a much higher speed than an individual rider. In the mountains, however, the riders are going to slow for this to be effective, and so they can attack and ride away from each other.
Stages fall into roughly three types. Flat stages don’t have any significant uphill stretches and almost always end in a sprint to the line. Mountain stages involve cycling up at least one often two or three mountains. These are often the most exciting stages in the Tour, as it is where the overall race is won and lost. Time trial stages are a bit different; here the riders set off one-by-one and race against the clock rather than each other. These also tend to be key stages for the overall competition.
Although the ultimate prize in the Tour is of course to win the race, there are actually several competitions going on. The prize of each of these is a different coloured jersey, and on each stage the rider who is leading in a competition wears the jersey for the day.
The yellow jersey is for the overall classification, and is given to the overall leader of the race. The standings are not based on who wins stages but on time. A rider who wins five flat stages might not gain any time over their rivals, but another might gain several minutes on a mountain stage and so they would lead the race. This is why sprinters win a lot of stages but not the yellow jersey. Britain’s Chris Froome is the favourite to the win the overall classification, and therefore the Tour, at 2/1.
The green jersey is for the points classification; points are given based on the finishing order for each stage. In addition, there are also fixed points in some stages known as intermediate sprints, which give bonus points to the riders that cross them first. Sprinters, such as the Isle of Man’s Mark Cavendish, enter the Tour specifically to try and win the green jersey. He won it in 2011 and is 5/1 to do so again this year.
The polka-dot jersey (white with red spots) is given for the mountains classification. This is like the green jersey except that it awards points for performance in the hills of the race. Riders gain points for being one of the first to summit a major climb. The overall contenders often do well in this competition, however it is often targeted by climbing specialists.
Lastly, the white jersey is awarded for the youth classification. It is worn by the highest placed rider in the overall classification who is aged 25 or under. Winners of this jersey are often up-and-coming stars of cycling, hoping to compete for the yellow jersey in future. Occasionally, the overall winner may win both the yellow and white jersey if they are young enough.
Riders typically fall into one of three categories, although there are other types.
Overall contenders: These are the cyclists that will be competing for victory in the Tour. They tend to be very good climbers, often amongst the best, but they’re also good at time trials and their bodies can recover quickly to be on top form every day. Spain’s Alberto Contador is an example of this type of rider, and the two-time former winner is 4/1 in the odds.
Sprinters: The fastest and often biggest riders; they can accelerate very quickly to race away from the peloton at the end of flat stage. Their size and weight mean they are often poor climbers, however, and they cannot keep up in the mountains. Sprinters are never in contention to win the race overall, but compete instead for the green jersey. Slovakian Peter Sagan won the jersey last year and is once again the favourite for the points classification odds-on at 5/6.
Climbers: These mountain goats excel at cycling uphill at shocking speed. True climbers cannot keep up with the overall contenders in the time trials, and so often lose time in the overall competition. There is some overlap between overall contenders and climbers, however, and on a hilly route such as this year’s they can threaten the yellow jersey. Nairo Quintana is a good example of a climber and is one of the favourites for the overall despite a weakness in the time trials; the Colombian is favourite to win the polka-dot jersey at 5/1.
A total of 22 teams will take part in the Tour, with nine riders on each team supported by mechanics, a sporting director (the directeur sportif), physiotherapists, chefs, drivers, and many others. Some of these support staff follow the cyclists in a team car, ready to provide assistance if needed.
One of the most unique aspects of the sport of cycling is the structure of the nine man teams. One rider will be the nominated leader. The other riders act as support for this leader, which involves setting the chase, chasing down other riders who try to get ahead, and even getting water bottles and food from the team car. These riders are known as domestiques – French for ‘servants’.
They will often sacrifice hours of cycling and effort just to give their leader a chance at the most crucial moments of a stage or to chase down an escaping rival. Domestiques make up the majority of the riders at the Tour and although they are rarely in the limelight they are a crucial part of the race.