This weekend begins the 97th edition of greatest annual event in sport, the Tour de France.  This year’s race covers 3600 km over three weeks, which is a little farther than the distance between Chicago and San Francisco.  Since it’s the one Grand Tour that gets decent American television coverage, I hope you’ll take some time to watch.  On y va!

One of the best parts of watching La Grand Boucle on tv is getting to see France.  France spends my tv tax on a team of motorcycle camerapeople and helicopters to cover the race all throughout the French countryside, now in full High-Def!  This year’s run into Paris (July 25th) even covers a good portion of my bike commute to work, and goes within a stone’s throw of Aime-Cotton.  You might even get to see a helicopter shot of my walk to work!

I thought I’d write up a short primer on what the race is about for those of you who haven’t watched before.  The Tour brings together 198 professional cyclists, twenty-two teams of nine, who compete in a variety of competitions throughout the three weeks.   There’s the daily competition, the overall competition, sprinting points competition, climbing points competition, the under-23 competition, and the team competition.  This may seem like a lot of different competitions, but it’s small compared to the Tour of Italy.    I’ll discuss each of these below.

The first competition is for “stage wins,” when someone rides that day, or stage, faster than anyone else.  For your win you’re rewarded with a bouquet of flowers and a stuffed lion on top of a podium  with kisses from the hot podium girls, as well as going down in the annals of cycling history.  Well, if you win any of these competitions there’s the podium with the flowers and the girls every day.  A lot of girls get hired to kiss sweaty guys right after they rode a bike for six hours.

People primarily focus on the “Leader’s Jersey” competition, which is the person who’s sum-total riding time is shortest.  So if all the riders go from A to B, and then from B to C, the Leader’s Jersey is the shortest total time of A->B+B->C, even if someone else has covered one of theses two legs faster.  For leading this General Classification, or GC, you get to wear the coveted Maillot Jaune, or Yellow Jersey.  If you’re wearing the Yellow Jersey it’s expected that you’ll do whatever you can to keep it, and this is referred to as “defending the Yellow Jersey.”  We can discuss the tactics of defending later on.

It turns out that even out of a group of 180 elite professional cyclists, not everyone is well suited for trying to win the Yellow Jersey.  Some people are too big to climb mountains well, but are really good at going really fast for a few hundred meters.    Often, a stage will finish with all of the riders together, and these sprinters will try to win the stage in what’s referred to as a “mass sprint,” often topping 45mph.  Besides earning you the stage win, there are “sprinters points” available, where the first few people across the finish line receive points, and the leader of the sprint points competition gets to wear the Green Jersey.  Along the stages there are also intermediate places along the way where the first three riders to cross are rewarded with a few extra sprint points.

Others are better at climbing mountains, a task the sprinters are ill-suited, and they compete for the Polka-Dot Jersey.  Each hard mountain climb offers points to those who are first to reach the peak, and the leader of this points classification is known as “King of the Mountains.”  On these stages the sprinters just try to finish within the day’s cutoff time, which is something like within ten percent of the first finish time.  If you come in past the cut-off time, you go home.

There are three other competitions that run during the Tour, but these are somewhat less important.  One is the Under-23 competition, which is the same as the Overall competition, but only included riders who are under 23 years old.  The U23 leader wears an all-white jersey.  Clearly at 23 you become some sort of cycling Bar Mitzvah.  The second is the “most combative rider”, which is for someone who expended a lot of energy in what was most likely a futile attempt to win the day.  For this their bib number is printed in red instead of black the next day.   The other is the Team competition, where the lowest three times of riders from each team are added together.  They also get special black on yellow bib numbers.

With all these competitions, teams usually try to focus on one or two.  Usually one.  So, if each team of nine is only focused on one person, what are the other eight guys doing?  Well, the other guys mostly help out their team leader, and are known as “domestiques,” literally translated as “servants.”  They protect the team leader from the wind (which is a big factor – riding into the wind costs you about 30% more energy), pace them back if they fall behind, and make sure the team leader has plenty of snacks and liquids.  The strength of your domestiques often determines  how well your team does in it’s goals – many of Lance Armstrong’s domestiques from back when he was a winner have gone on to be team captains for other teams.

Finally, this all comes together (usually) in one of three ways – individual time trials, flat stages, and mountain stages.   Saturday is an opening “Prologue,” with a short individual time trial (ITT) under 12km.  ITT means each rider rides the same course by himself, and the start times are staggered by two or three minutes so that riders don’t overlap.  These were popularized in England beginning in 1895, as that  group start road racing was banned until 1959.   Time trialing is essentially a race against the clock, and not the best introduction to cycling (it’s a little boring.)  However, there’s a huge amount of technology which goes into the equipment (lots of wind-tunnel time), and everyone wears goofy helmets.

A better introduction begins with Sunday, a flat stage.  A small group of 1-20 riders will break away from the main pack, in a (usually) futile attempt to win the day.  The main pack, or “Peleton,” will give chase, and try to catch the escaped riders right before the finish line.  After the catch, the sprinters will all try to win the stage in a chaotic mess often involving crashes where someone usually ends up with a broken collarbone.  This year there’s a total of nine flat stages.

The mountains begin with Stage 7, which is Saturday, July 10th.  The mountains are where the real shake-ups on the General Classification will begin.  It’s pretty much every man for himself as the riders test themselves against the mountains.  Tom Simpson never left Mont Ventoux.  Tune in on Sunday for Stage 8 to see me try to shove Lance off his bike on the Col de la Ramaz!