Le Tour de France
A stage race
The Tour de France is the most prestigious stage race in the world. Broken down into 21 stages, it attracts the best riders in the world. Depending on their individual speciality (flat, sprint, mountain, etc.) they will vie for stage wins and the honour of wearing distinctive jerseys.
The distinctive jerseys
There are 4 distinctive jerseys:
- the yellow jersey rewards the rider who is top of the overall rankings, which translates as the rider who has taken the least amount of time to complete all the stages. It is the ultimate prize.
- the green jersey is awarded to the rider who is top of the overall points rankings. Points are earned by those who finish at the front of a stage or intermediate sprint. Consistency is rewarded. The jersey is fought over between the sprinters.
- the polka-dot jersey is awarded to the rider who is top of the overall climber rankings. Riders earn points by being the first to cross difficult climbs. It is, therefore, a jersey reserved for climbers.
- The white jersey is the equivalent to the yellow jersey for riders who are younger than 25. It is, therefore, a jersey reserved for the best young riders.
- There are also other prizes, such as the rankings for the best team and the combative rider award.
The Tour de France is broken down into 21 stages of varying profiles. There are 3 main stage types:
- "flat": they pose no major problem to the riders. They usually finish in a sprint, because the absence of any difficulties means that it is impossible to disrupt the peloton, which reels in any breakaway riders before the end of the stage. These are key stages for the green jersey.
- "hills": these consist of a succession of rises and short climbs spread along the length of the stage. These stages are wide open because breakaways have more chance of going all the way. They also favour punchers and climbers.
- "mountain": the most prestigious stages that only climbers can hope to win, unless a breakaway manages to hold them off. It is on these stages that riders who vie for the overall rankings try to create leads on their rivals. They are also vital for any riders aiming for the polka-dot jersey.
- There are also time-trials (individual or team), where riders must cover a certain distance in the least time possible. These stages are vital for the overall rankings.
22 teams made up of 8 riders compete in the Tour de France. These teams are part of the world's cycling elite. The riders selected by the sports director to take part in the race are generally the best riders in the team.
Riders can be classified according to their strong points:
- sprinters: riders with a very high turn of speed. They are able to win flat stages and aim for the green jersey.
- punchers: riders who are able to make sudden accelerations on a climb. However, they are unable to maintain the tempo for long periods of time. They like hilly stages. They may aim for the green jersey and/or polka-dot jersey, but their race strategy must be studied carefully so that they score points on the key stages.
- climbers: they excel on long climbs. Mountain stages are their hunting ground. They can aim for the polka-dot jersey as well as the yellow jersey (if they are good rouleurs).
- rouleurs: often called time-trial specialists - they can ride solo at high speed. They aim for time-trials (preferably flat).
- fighters: these are riders who do not have one outstanding quality. They cannot compete against a specialist in any given domain. Their strategy is often to try and breakaway far from the finish and try to hold off the return of the peloton, or simply to take advantage of certain race conditions in the hope of a win.
There is usually a clear hierarchy between riders in a team: leader and team-mates.
- The objectives of the leader are to capitalize on the race strategy decided by the sports director and to win the race. They are the best riders in the team and save their strength for the key moments of a stage: the final sprint for the sprinters and the mountain passes for the climbers.
- Team-mates do their utmost to prevent their leader from wasting energy: they protect him from the wind, bring him feeds and chase down breakaways or dangerous riders. They can also breakaway to disrupt the strategies of rivals. They do their best to see that the race goes the way the sports director planned it. It may seem a menial task, but it's vital.
Status can evolve from stage to stage: a sprinter could be a leader on a flat stage, but he could be a simple teammate on a mountain stage because he has no chance of winning. In the same way, a rider who is well placed in the overall rankings could become leader.
It's true that a rider must be on form if he wants to win the Tour, or a stage, but it is not always the strongest who comes out on top. He must adapt his strategy as the race evolves, and he must be able to manage moments of both strength and weakness. To make their mark on a Tour, the great champions have always displayed cunning and intelligence, above and beyond their physical prowess, in order to foil the plans of their rivals.