Tour de France
(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Thanks to the ‘magic’ that is 2020, the world’s premier bicycle race, the Tour de France, is a September event this year rather than taking its usual throne as a July institution. Thankfully, that 2020 has in its infinite wisdom allowed us even to hold Le Tour this year, we should be grateful.

The 107th edition of the Great Race started today with a 156 km loop starting and finishing in the seaside city of Nice. For those that are not familiar with the intricacies of the event, or of tour cycling in general, I’ve got your back. Here’s what you need to know about Le Tour. Let’s start with the basics….

The Tour de France is the biggest annual sporting event in the world, attracting an estimated 12 million fans each year – although this year will be a little surreal given the expected sparsity of roadside crowds due to COVID. The Tour takes place across 21 stages, taking the form of road races, team time trials and the punishing individual time trials, dubbed The Race of Truth.

Each year 176 riders, representing 22 teams, take centre stage as they zip through the cities, towns, and gorgeous countryside of France, including the fabled Pyrenees and the intimidating French Alps.

There are races within a race in tour cycling (keep an eye for my predictions pieces about these). As well as the team title, riders compete for the White Jersey (in French, Maillot Blanc) awarded to the best young rider, the Polka Dot Jersey (Maillot a Pois) given to the best climber on tour – the King of the Mountains – and the Green Jersey (Maillot Vert) for the best sprinter in the field. But the biggest prize in the race – indeed the biggest prize in world cycling – is the Yellow Jersey for winning General Classification: the Maillot Jaune.

In most cases, the winner of the Maillot Jaune is a climber who can handle themselves well enough in the individual time trials, as they’re the two disciplines in cycling that have the greatest potential to put time between you and your opposition.

To the untrained eye, tour cycling looks an individual sport, but it is very much a team event. A teams best rider needs the pace making support of his teammates. These domestiques (French for servant) are paid millions to make sure that their team leader is protected from opposition attacks, kept clear of accidents and sheltered from an untimely cross or head wind. It’s then on the leader and their team manager to devise a way for that rider to put themselves ahead of the other Maillot Jaune contenders. Sound complicated? That because it sort of is! Tour cycling isn’t called ‘Chess on Wheels’ for no reason.

So, let’s say you’ve stumbled upon Le Tour and decide to settle in to see what all the fuss is about. Here’s a list of Frequently Asked Questions that will help you enjoy the experience a little more, as well as make you sound dead clever to your friends.

Why are all these guys riding together in a big bunch?

You will often see riders bunched together in a peloton. The reason for this is simple – energy conservation. It’s estimated that a rider can save around 30% of their energy reserves through the simple method of drafting in the peloton. In a race that covers around 4000km in 3 weeks, that’s important. There is a spirit of camaraderie within the peloton; you’ll often see teams and riders rotate the task of sitting a the head of the pack, arrowing into the wind.

If this peloton thing is so great, why is there a group of riders so far ahead of them?

Yes, the peloton is good. Also yes, you will find that riders eschew the security of the peloton and ride off in a breakaway. Most of the time, the breakaway is eventually reeled in by the peloton – energy conservation, and all that – which makes a breakaway rider holding off the mob towards the end of a stage one of the most exciting events in tour cycling.

If the breakaway know they’re not going to win, why form a breakaway in the first place?

The altruistic reasons for forming a breakaway are as follows:

  • It’s a chance for a lesser known rider to perhaps steal a moment of glory by winning a stage.
  • To win the Maillot Vert and Maillot a Pois, you need to accumulate points, which you can get by being in the first few people to reach certain markers on the course.

The cynical reason? Breakaways get TV air time, which is good for the sponsors!

So why did that rider make an attack?

Sometimes this is obvious. A leader might make a move deep into a mountain stage to see if their competitors have the legs to go with them. A rider competing for the Maillot a Pois might decide that now is his chance to steal a bagful of points. Sometimes it’s simply a bullying tactic. A team with General Classification aspirations might want to flex their muscle and intimidate their rivals by setting a cracking pace, or trying to drag an opposition rider with them in order to tire him out.

If this rider is so good, why isn’t he winning all the stages?

This is the biggest mistake a rookie cycling enthusiast can make: thinking that the best rider should win each & every stage. Remember earlier when I mentioned the type of rider that generally wins the Maillot Jaune? Well, not all stages in Le Tour are equal. There are flat stages that are designed for the more powerful rider that can hit top speeds of around 80km per hour on flat land. Others contain climbs of over 10km where it feels like you’re riding vertically. The best riders bide their time, minimising the losses in the stages that don’t suit their skill set, allowing others to take the limelight for a stage. Consistency is the key in claiming the Maillot Jaune.

Finally, you’ll hear a lot of words and phrases that will sound foreign to you if you’re unfamiliar with tour cycling. Many of those words will literally be foreign! We’ve already mentioned the jersey names, and touched on the role of the domestique; here’s a few more words and phrases that you can use to sound like an expert:

Bidon: A water bottle.

Cross wind: As the name suggests, it’s a wind that comes in from the side of a peloton. These have the ability to tear a peloton apart if not managed properly by the group.

Echelon: This is a diagonal, snaking formation that the peloton takes to counter a cross wind.

Flamme Rouge: Literally translates as Red Flag. The Flamme Rouge indicates that there is a single kilometre remaining in the stage.

Head wind: Hopefully this one is obvious. A head wind is a wind that meets the peloton front on, significantly slowing the pace of the group.

Leadout train: As a flat stage comes to a close, teams look to get their best sprinter (see below) into position for a stage win. The leadout train is a series of riders that form over the last few kilometres of the stage, increase the speed of the group with their sprinter drafting in behind, before launching himself over the last few hundred meters to the finish.

Musette: across the stage there are designated ‘feeding stations’ where riders pick up a small shoulder bag that generally contains snacks, energy gels and bidons.

Rouleur: A strongly built rider that is generally suited to flatter the flatter stages that require sustained efforts. A rouleur is usually a good time trialist.

Sprinter: As mentioned in the Leadout Train, a sprinter is a powerful rider that is able to accelerate very quickly to an immense top speed. They’re only required to exert maximum effort over the last stretch of a stage, with the goal of crossing the finish line first.

Sticky Bidon: This is a colloquial term for when a rider goes back to his team support vehicle (all teams ride with various support vehicles in tow) to pick up a new bidon. The rider will hold on to the car, essentially getting a free ride for a few moments. This is tolerated to an extent, but too sticky a bidon will invoke a fine or a time penalty.

Tail wind: a riders best friend! A tail wind gives the riders legs blessed relief.

So now you’re equipped to watch the worlds biggest sport event, set in the most splendid setting, and you’ll look like an expert, no less!

Bon velo!

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