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July 04, 2009

Beginner's Guide to the Tour de France for 2009

If you're interested in the Tour de France, but you don't really get what's going on all the time, this is the post for you.

The Tour de France is the biggest event in bicycle racing. It's a three-week race, starting on the first Saturday in July, that includes about 20 daily stages, and two rest days. There are two other 3-week Grand Tours in cycling, the Vuelta á España in September, and the Giro d'Italia in May, but the Tour draws more fan and sponsorship interest than either of those.

Even though an individual wins a bicycle race, the sport is really contested by teams. Having a team to shelter the leader, from the wind, from mechanicals, and from having to chase every attack up the road, can make all the difference in a team leader's chances.

One of the things that makes a stage race unique in sports is the variety of different contests going on at the same time. Twenty teams and 180 riders will take the start today in Monaco, but only one will take the overall victory, and many teams have only faint hopes of even competing for the overall. Recognizing that, Grand Tour organizers run a number of different competitions within their races.

Most obviously, there's a stage winner each day. Usually, that's simply the rider who crosses the stage's finish line first. In a time trial, riders make a staggered start over a set course, with the rider who finishes in the least time declared the winner. In the team time trial (this year, that's Tuesday's Stage 4), the winner will be the team whose 5th rider crosses the finish line in the least time. Why 5th? To discourage teams from resting riders or sheltering them from the maximum effort of the team time trial.

Winning a Tour stage is a highlight of many riders' careers. Only 10 Americans have ever won Tour stages, from Jeff Pierce back in 1987 to Levi Leipheimer in 2007. Lance Armstrong has 25 career stage wins.

Each day, race officials also name a “most agressive rider”. This should be a rider who shook things up on the stage, by riding away from the main group of riders (called the “peloton” for “ball of wool”) or, often, a French rider who participated in a breakaway group. That rider gets special red race numbers (a “dossard” in French) to wear during the next stage. At the end of the overall race, a rider is named “most agressive” for the Tour.

There are also 5 parallel competitions being contested through the entire Tour. The most famous is the yellow jersey (maillot jaune), or overall leader's jersey. The rider with the lowest elaspsed time over all the stages run is awarded a yellow jersey to wear during the next stage. Sometimes, a rider is referred to as the “yellow jersey on the road” – that means that this rider is the best placed rider in a breakaway group that leads the previous race leader by more time than that rider's previous deficit. In other words, if conditions held as they are, that rider would take over the race lead. Five Americans have worn the yellow jersey at some point during the race: Greg Lemond, Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, and Floyd Landis. Note that there's no requirement for a yellow jersey to have won a stage. If he can make the lowest overall time by staying close to stage winners, that's good enough, and Greg Lemond, among others, won a Tour without winning a single stage. Yellow jersey candidates must be good in the mountains and on the Tour's time trials, the two venues that create most of the time gaps between riders.

Probably the next most prestigious is the green jersey, which is awarded to the rider who amasses the most points at sprint lines throughout the course. Many teams carry specialist sprinters, sometimes with one or more “lead-out men,” who are fairly strong sprinters themselves, and give their all to put a teammate at the front of a bunch in the last 200-300 meters of a stage. Points are awarded for the top finishers in flat stages, with the stage winner taking maximum points, and a sliding point scale that may go 20 riders deep. There are also intermediate sprints in the middle of many stages, which work the same way. The first rider to the sprint line receives maximum points, decreasing by place down to one point. Last year, the green jersey was won by Oscar Freire of Rabobank, but this year, 2007 winner Tom Boonen and Columbia phenom Mark Cavendish look like more likely candidates.

The King of the Mountains jersey is white with red polka-dots. Riders receive points for being among the first to reach mountain summits on the Tour's mountain stages. Again, the first rider to the summit receives maximum points, tapering to 1 point, with more points on climbs deemed hors categorie, or “beyond classification,” and fewer at lower categorized (in decreasing order: HC, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Category) climbs.

The white jersey goes to the rider under 25 who is highest placed in the overall standings. Last year, Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck won the white jersey competition, and he's a candidate for the overall win, and to repeat in the white jersey.

Finally, each day, organizers total the times of each team's first three finishers, and the team with the lowest overall total leads the Team Classification. Note that each day can feature different riders, but the first three from that team are totalled for this competition. The leading team each day is awarded race numbers with a yellow background, instead of the usual white.

Unofficially, fans also track the overall last-placed rider in the Tour, who is called the lanterne rouge in comparison with the red lantern that used to hang from the caboose of a train. Wim Vansevenant of Silence-Lotto was the Tour's lanterne rouge a record three times consecutively from 2006 through 2008, but retired after last season, making room for a new red lantern.

It's the ad hoc alliances and shifting rider and team strategies that make a stage race fascinating.


The existence of all these competitions and stages makes for many alliances on the road. Different teams have different Tour objectives, and so adopt different strategies. During the flatter stages, teams with outstanding sprinters like Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish, and Thor Hushovd, are likely to work to reel in any breakaway, setting up a sprint finish that favors their fast men.

As the race progresses, responsibility for chasing down breakaways typically falls to the team of the leader, or sometimes to teams who will see a rider in the breakaway as a threat to their well-placed riders. Late in the Tour, for instance, a team with a 3rd-place rider will tear its lungs out to keep the 4th-place rider from getting up the road, and endangering their man's podium placing.

Teams without good prospects in the overall will find other goals: Stages that might favor their best climber, breaks where they can get a disproportionate number of riders from their own team, or a chance to launch a climbing specialist on a day-long solo expedition, where he can collect a jerseyful of King of the Mountain points.

The rate of success in a breakaway is low, but it's better than that for a rider in the peloton. If you get a rider in a 5-man break, you've got a one-in-five chance if the break succeeds, while you've got a one-in-twenty (20 teams riding this year) chance in the pack.


TdFblog | Beginners guide to the Tour de France (updated 2003)

This is the original version of my “Beginner's Guide,” with answers to a lot of questions from readers.

Wikipedia | 2008 Tour de France Prize Money

Tour de France Lanterne Rouge - A blog dedicated to the fight for last place in the Tour

Posted by Frank Steele on July 4, 2009 in About the Tour | Permalink


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Thanks for writing this! Now I can understand what I'm watching...

Posted by: Paul C at Jul 18, 2009 11:48:40 AM

Question..the rules explicitly disallow riders from hanging on to motor vehicles under all circumstances..why do I see this all the time?

Posted by: zong at Jul 12, 2010 2:25:43 PM