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A Novice's Guide to the Tour de France

The Tour de France's appearance in Yorkshire this year has sparked unprecedented interest here in the UK, with many people coming to the sport for the first time. We recognise that the world of professional road cycling can be bewildering at the best of times, so here's our guide to the Tour de France for the uninitiated!

The Tour de France was introduced in 1903 by L’Auto newspaper as a way of boosting sales and has taken place every year since except breaks during WW1 and WW2, making this year's race the 101st Tour. The race is the world's most prestigious cycling road race and one of the three Grand Tours of cycling along with the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

It has become the biggest annual sporting event in the world and the biggest event in the cycling calender, with every aspiring cyclist dreaming of riding the Tour and winners venerated for the rest of their lives. Every year thousands travel from around Europe to line the roads to watch it pass while millions watch on TV around the world. 198 competitors are taking part this year, with a cavalcade of support staff, media and race officials following them along the route. As well as being the biggest, it's almost certainly one of the toughest.

It is a stage race, with individual day races in different locations for three weeks. There are honours and prizes awarded for winning the individual races every day, but also for performance over the three weeks as a whole. The biggest honour is winning the General Classification (GC), or finishing the Tour with the lowest overall time over the whole three weeks. Every day, the riders must ensure that they aren't too far behind the winner or else they are eliminated from the running.

The Course

The 2014 route is 3664km long, comprising of 21 stages and visiting four countries along the route.Starting in Yorkshire, riders then travel to France and visit Belgium and Spain briefly along the way to the finish in Paris. The course is designed to encompass varied terrain, both to test the riders and to provide ample entertainment for spectators. The main difference is of course how hilly a stage is. You don't need to be an expert to know that it's harder to cycle up hill than on the flat, or to imagine how different cycling is in the plains of Normandy and the mountains of the Alps. The tour covers them both, and everything in between.

There are also special stages thrown in here and there as well. This year's Tour includes a stage with extensive sections of pavé, or cobbled road. The North of France and Belgium are famous for their pavé roads, and they present a unique challenge to the cyclist. The roughness of the road make riding much more fatiguing, causes more punctures and makes handling more difficult. They are slippery in the wet and are full of unseen bumps and potholes, leading to lots of crashes. All this means that pavé stages are the most dangerous and unpredictable in the Tour. There is also features a single Time Trial, where each rider races alone against the clock.

There are 9 stages which are classed as Flat including stage 1 and 3 in the UK and Stage 5 which includes 9 sections of Pavé en route to Arenberg. There are 5 Hilly or Medium mountain stages, which include some climbing. These stages include the second stage from York to Sheffield. There are 6 high mountain stages which include a large amount of climbing and one Individual time trial where each rider rides the course alone against the clock.

Tactics

Different cyclists are suited to different conditions, so varied stages makes sure that all the athletes have a chance to shine. Flat stages suit sprinters: bigger riders with a higher top speed and a tactical knack for finding a good position in a bunch finish. Mountainous stages favour climbers: smaller riders often skeletally thin whose low weight makes ascending hills easier. There are riders who specialise in pavé and Time Trials, who will bide their time during most of the Tour and only really targeting one race.

All this contributes to the sometimes impenetrable tactics of a Grand Tour. A rider winning one day won't even feature on another. Someone might save their energy for weeks, keeping out of the way to avoid crashes, only to blow the race apart when the conditions suit him. Riders contesting the GC might let an opponent gain time on him on the flat, safe in the knowledge that he'll win it back in the hills. Two riders next to each other in the race might be totally indifferent to the other's performance, with each targeting different stages or different prizes.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that it is a team sport. There are 22 teams taking part with 9 riders each. Ambitions differ even amongst the teams: some teams are geared towards sprinting, some towards GC contention and others simply take opportunities where they can get them. The vast majority of team members, however, aren't offered the chance to win. Each team has a handful of star riders who are likely to win, and the rest of the team is primarily there just to help. This means ferrying food and drink around, ensuring their captain is in a good position, and riding in front so their captain can rest in their slipstream.

In a race of this magnitude, saving energy like this is of prime importance. That is why most of the riders stick together in the big group known as the peloton. It is significantly easier in another rider's slipstream, so riders and teams take turns to cycle at the front and let others rest. It is worth being near the front for tactical reasons, however, to stay away from crashes and remain free to control the speed of the race or respond to any accelerations from opponents. Some riders go up the road ahead of the peloton, hoping to snatch a win as part of a breakaway, but the combined strength of the peloton often catches up with them eventually.

No matter which honours they are contesting or what their role in the team is, the one constant for each rider is that the Tour is a uniquely challenging endurance event. By the time the race finishes for its final sprint on the Champs Elysees in Paris, every rider is exhausted and only the very best are left.

Why is it starting in Yorkshire when it's the Tour de France?

The Tour de France is primarily held in France but regularly visits nearby countries such as Andorra, Spain, Belgium, Germany, UK, Holland & Austria among others. When racing in the Pyrennes and the Alps, forays into Switzerland and Spain are almost inevitable. The Tour first started outside of France in 1954 and starts outside of French borders have become a semi regular occurrence over the years and increasingly more popular since the late 90’s. Starting abroad is seen as a way of boosting the popularity of the race and being awarded the Grand Depart can bring a big boost to the local economy.

This is the second time the race has started in the UK after starting in London in 2007. In 2015 the Race will start in Utrecht, Netherlands and this will be only the second time in the race’s history it will start outside of France 2 years running.

The Jerseys and Competitions

 

The jersey that most people are familiar with is the Yellow Jersey which is awarded at the end of each stage to the rider who is currently leading the GC with the lowest overall time. This is the jersey won by Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013. The winner of the Yellow Jersey has to be a good all round rider, strong in the mountains and the Time Trial, who avoids crashes and other mishaps and has solid team support. The Leaders Jersey is Yellow because the L’Auto newspaper was printed on distinctive Yellow paper.

The Green Jersey is the points classification jersey. Points are awarded based on the riders' position at the end of individual stages and in intermediate sprints along the route. The amount of points varies from stage to stage depending on whether the stage is classed as a flat stage, a medium mountain stage or a high mountain stage. The points are skewed towards the flat stages, favouring riders who specialise in sprint finishes and leading to many referring to the Green Jersey as the Sprinter's Jersey. Intermediate sprints award points for the first fifteen riders to pass secondary sprint lines in the middle of the stage. The record number of Green Jersey wins is held by Erik Zabel with 6 between 1996 and 2001. This jersey has been won by Peter Sagan for the last 2 years.

The King of the Mountains jersey, distinctive in red polka dots, is awarded to the rider with the most king of the mountains points. These points are separate to the Green Jersey points and are awarded at the top of classified climbs. Climbs are classified depending on how difficult they are to ascend, with more points available for those that conquer the toughest climbs first. The categories go from 4th Category to 1st, with the Hors catégorie (Beyond Categorization) classification reserved for the really brutal climbs. It is often worth it for riders targeting this jersey to race in a breakaway so they can take all the mountains points before the peloton. Frenchman Richard Virenque holds the record for wins of this jersey with 7 wins between 1994 and 2004. In 2013 this jersey was won by Nairo Quintana.

The White jersey is awarded to the cyclist under 26 who has the lowest overall time at the end of each stage. This was also won in 2013 by Nairo Quintana.

There are also prizes for the most combatitive rider in every stage, the best overall team performance in the GC, and of course the individual stage wins.

Who is going to win?

Check out Steve's predictions for the 2014 tour!

3 July 2014

TdF Planet X Range