Let’s face it, watching road cycling on T.V. is somewhat of a niche pastime that is predominantly enjoyed by an audience that consists of enthusiastic, passionate cyclists who genuinely feel they share something in common with the heroics often seen in Europe’s biggest road races. It’s not unusual for those that avidly ride and identify with the road cycling culture to find inspiration, beauty, and fandom in watching road cycling on T.V.
For me personally, I’ve always felt that if I wasn’t out riding, the next best thing was to be excavating motivation for the ride by watching those who do it best, with the bonus of admiring the beauty of places that I’ve never been to. What I mean is when you watch road cycling on T.V., it’s as if you’re watching what they call a “moving post card.” One summer, I was guilty of watching all 21 stages of the Tour de France. After its conclusion in Paris, I felt as though I had seen all of France. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched the tour from start to finish, but thanks to a DVR recorder and live web streaming, I still manage to get my fair fix of televised road cycling.
As the Tour de France is by far the most iconic and well-known bike race in the world, it also receives the most media attention and coverage. For this reason, the tour is the most likely cycling event to reach out and grab the attention of cyclists and non-cyclists alike, who may not regularly follow the pro road cycling calendar. Any new viewer will be quick to find out that the tour can be rather difficult to fully understand, as there is a plethora of dynamics that make up the racing. Every July, a new wave of curious viewers may need some basic decoding in order to fully understand everything there is to love about this epic race. Think of this guide as a “how-to” on watching the Tour de France. After all, road racing has been called “chess on wheels.”
A general assumption by those who aren’t familiar with road racing is that the first rider across the line is the winner. While this is true for one day races, this is only partly true in stage races. In case you don’t know what a stage race is, a stage race is a multi-day race that is divided into consecutive days. Each day is treated as a new race (known as a “stage”) with a designated starting line and finishing line, and upon conclusion of each stage every rider’s time is recorded. After the final stage, the rider with the lowest accumulated time through all the stages is the overall winner, also known as “General Classification” or just “GC.”
Most stage races on the pro calendar range between 3 and 8 days, while the Tour de France is a heaping 3 weeks long, with only two rest days, equating to 21 days of brutal racing. Over those three weeks, nearly 2,200 miles are covered by the racers, and to be exact, the 2016 route will cover a total distance of 2,186 miles. Keep in mind that these miles are anything but flat.
2,186 miles of racing in 21 days.
The Route and the Stages
Each year the tour’s route is purposely different than the year before, and since the 1950’s, the route is almost never 100% inside France’s borders. This year the tour will cross the French border into Spain, the Principality of Andorra, and Switzerland. The tour’s start, also known as the Grand Départ, is also different from year to year and is often held in a neighboring country such as Belgium, The Netherlands, and even the U.K., while the tour’s finish has been held on The Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris since the 1970s. Starting in the French department of Manche, this year’s 21 stages includes 9 flat stages, 1 hilly stage, 9 mountain stages, and 2 individual time trials. Each type of stage poses its own unique challenges, suiting riders of different talents.
9 Flat Stages
9 Flat Stages
1 Hilly Stage
9 Mountain Stages
9 Mountain Stages
2 Time Trial Stages
Individual Time Trial (ITT)
With 22 teams racing this year’s tour and each team made up of 6 to 9 riders, the 2016 field is 198 riders strong. That’s a lot of riders chasing one prize. However, the truth is there are only a handful of riders who show up to the tour with the physical capacity and skill set to truly make a run at the overall win. So what about all the other riders? Here lay the beauty and pandemonium that is the Tour de France.
While the General Classification is the most coveted prize, the tour should not be viewed as a single race, but as many races within a race. With riders of all shapes, sizes and talents competing, every rider arrives with a role and a set of goals. Here is what’s up for grabs and who’ll be chasing it:
The Yellow Jersey
Often referred to by commentators as the “maillot jaune,” the yellow jersey is the most recognizable and sought-after prize in the tour. It is worn throughout the race by the current leader of the General Classification (GC), meaning a number of different riders will wear the yellow jersey over the course of the race. While wearing the jersey for even one day looks good on any riders resume, the real winner of the jersey is the rider who dawns it on the final podium. It is they who can call themselves “Tour de France winner.”
Who chases it:
Riders with a keen eye on winning the yellow jersey must be very strong climbers and very strong time trialists, as it is these two disciplines where the most time can be gained or lost. These riders arrive with a team dedicated to helping them win the overall GC. These rider helpers, known as “domestiques” are the workhorses of road racers, performing various roles including anything from fetching water bottles from the team car to pulling their team leader halfway up a mountain. When a rider wins the overall GC, it usually celebrated as a team victory.
The Green Jersey
The green jersey is often viewed as the sprinter’s jersey. Like the yellow jersey, it is worn throughout the race by the current leader of the points classification. These points are won in two ways. First, they can be won at the finish line, meaning high placed finishers earn points. Secondly they can be earned by winning intermediate sprints which are sprint lines strategically placed throughout a stage (usually in flat stages) in which sprinters treat as a finish line by trying to out sprint others to be the first across the line.
Who chases it:
For sprinters, the Yellow Jersey is simply unattainable. This is because sprinters have a sole focus on being the fastest to the line in short bunch sprints. This often requires more muscle mass, and a bike and team dedicated to helping sprinters win flat stages. While true sprinters go into the tour hunting as many stage victories as possible, they also go in with an eye on the green jersey.
The Polka Dot Jersey
Known as the “King of the Mountains,” jersey, the polka dot jersey is worn by the most consistent climber. Like the green jersey, the first riders to reach the summit of a climb first are awarded points. During mountain stages, intermediate King of the Mountains (or KOM) lines are placed at the summit of each climb. Riders trying to win the polka dot jersey try to out climb the others to gain maximum KOM points. The bigger the mountain, the more points are awarded.
Who chases it: It’s easy to assume that any talented climber would pursue this jersey. However, that’s not the case. Most of the top climbers pursue the yellow jersey and do not waste their energy chasing the polka dot jersey. This means, the polka dot jersey is usually pursued by riders with no hope of the yellow jersey. These riders often ride in breakaways, meaning they ride way out ahead of the peloton in order to gain an advantage. While riding in a breakaway has proven an effective method, it does require more rider energy.
The White Jersey
Known as the “best young rider” category, the white jersey is awarded to the highest placed rider 25 years old or younger in the General Classification. The white jersey is a great way to get a glimpse of the up and coming talent.
Who chases it: Any rider aged 25 years or younger. Any young rider in the tour would be ecstatic to wear this jersey.
Other Titles to Claim
Most Aggressive Rider Award
At the conclusion of each stage, a Tour de France jury awards a distinct red bib number to the rider who showed the most courage, put in the most attacks, and made the biggest effort. After the final stage of the tour, an overall winner is also chosen by this same jury.
Who chases it: Since this award is somewhat subjective, it is not one which is intentionally pursued. Most of the time, it is unknowingly won by riders who spend a lot of time working in the breakaway in pursuit of a stage victory.
At the conclusion of each stage, the team classification is awarded to the best overall team. This is determined by adding up the times of the top three riders of each team at the end of each stage. The team with its top three riders containing the best cumulative time is awarded a yellow bib number. Like all the other awards, after the final stage of the tour, the best overall team is awarded.
Who chases it: Teams usually don’t head into the tour with the sole goal of winning the team classification and instead win it en route to achieving other goals. However, it’s not unheard of for teams within striking distance, heading into the final stages of the tour, to change their strategy in order to win it.
For many GC riders, achieving a spot on the final podium in Paris would be the highlight of their racing career. While they may not be awarded the hallowed yellow jersey, a spot on the final podium is without a doubt one of the biggest accomplishments in cycling.
Who chases it: Just about all General Classification riders, with the exception of a former winner, as anything less than the yellow jersey might be a disappointment.
As is with any achievement in the Tour de France, a stage win is enough to solidify most pro riders’ career. Many riders come to the tour targeting a single stage which may perfectly match their talents. For sprinters, racking up stage wins is all a part of their game, so much so that multiple stage wins is often seen as a bigger achievement than winning the green jersey.
Who chases it: All 198 riders to start the Tour de France.