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Ask the Experts: Understanding Le Tour de France

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Article posted: 25/06/2014

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Inspired by Member's queries, Ask the Experts articles cover the topics that you want to know about. In this special feature we look at The Tour de France. One of the biggest sporting events in the world with 12-15 million spectators lining the roads of France and watching the race on television.

With almost 200 riders rolling over the startline, only a handful have a realistic chance of wearing the leader’s yellow jersey, with fewer still in contention to hold onto it into Paris, so, what are the others there for and how can you make sense of the rapidly moving bunch of multicoloured lycra?

Winning Le Tour

The overall winner of Le Tour is determined by cumulative time and this is known as the General Classification or GC. The current GC leader rides in the distinctive yellow jersey or Maillot Jaune and, the rider with the lowest cumulative time crossing the line on the Champs Élysées, wins the race. Riders are given the time of the first rider crossing the line of the bunch they were in, not necessarily the actual time when they rolled over it themselves. Race commissaires determine where splits in the field occur and who is given what time.

Races within the race

As well as the race for GC, there are a number of other competitions running simultaneously.

The Green Jersey is worn by the leader of the points category. Points are awarded at intermediate sprints on the route and at stage finishes. It’s usually the specialist sprinters who contest the Green Jersey, GB’s Mark Cavendish won it in 2011, but occasionally long distance breakaway specialists and all-rounders derail their plans.

The Red Polka Dot Jersey is worn by the best climber. Points are accumulated at the top of any significant rise on the route but the biggest points hauls are reserved for the highest mountains and summit finishes.

The White Jersey is worn by the best young rider aged 25 years or less in the General Classification.

If the Yellow Jersey leader also happens to be leading one of the other classifications, the second placed rider in that competition will wear that jersey.

Aggressive riding is rewarded by the Combativity Award. This is determined at the end of each stage by a jury of experts, is signified by a red number and a final award is made at the end of the race.

The Team Classification is determined by adding up the times of the best three riders of each team in each stage. The current leaders of the Team Classification can be distinguished by their yellow race numbers.

The climbs

Climbs in the Tour de France are classified to indicate their severity. The smallest climbs receive a 4th Category classification, which then increase through 3rd, 2nd and 1st as the climbs get steeper and longer. The biggest mountain passes and summit finishes receive an HC, Hors Categorie, or beyond categorisation moniker. 

Its a team sport

Although only a handful of riders will be battling for the leaders’ jerseys, every rider in the race has a role to play and every team their own goals for the race.

Teams with genuine GC contenders will be focussing all of their efforts to get their man in yellow and, once they’ve got the jersey, defending it. Certain riders within the team, known as domestiques, will be designated with helping and protecting their team leader, riding in front of him, safely navigating him through the bunch and saving him energy by punching a hole in the wind. They will drop back to the team car for food and drink, pace their leader back up to the bunch if the leader has a crash, punctures or suffers a mechanical mishap, they will donate a wheel or their bike. Specialist climber domestiques in the team will ride for their leader in the mountains, setting a fast tempo at the front of the bunch to whittle down the field and to discourage attacks. It’s a genuine team effort with individual riders sacrificing their own ambitions and positions in the GC for the sake of their team leader.

Teams with a top sprinter won’t be targeting the yellow jersey but instead will be aiming for the Green Points Jersey and multiple stage wins. They will contain a number of strong riders who will provide their sprinter with a lead out train. These “trains” wind up the pace at the end of flat stages in long lines with the aim of preventing attacks and then launching their sprinter to victory. Some riders within a Green Jersey contender’s team may also be instructed to initiate breakaways on hillier stages and mop up the points available at intermediate sprints.

It’s unusual for a team to have genuine ambitions for both the Yellow and Green Jersey and, although a GC team may have a sprinter in its ranks, he won’t have a full lead out train and, if he wants stage wins, will be expected to infiltrate those of other teams. He’ll also be expected to sacrifice his own ambitions and carry out domestique duties for his team leader if necessary.

Some teams won’t have any genuine jersey contenders and they’ll be focussing on trying to poach stage wins by getting into breakaways, being aggressive, animating the race and trying to get their sponsors as much TV exposure as possible.

The stages

The terrain of the day’s stage will determine how the day’s racing unfolds.

Flat Stages

Flat stages will typically see an early break being allowed to get away from the bunch. This will never contain any riders who are perceived to be a threat in the GC rankings. Depending on the size of the breakaway group, if there are any Green Jersey points left at the intermediate sprint for the bunch to compete for, there will be a sprint. If not, the bunch will just roll through. The lead the breakaway establishes will be carefully monitored by the teams of the sprinters and, when necessary, they will move to the front and start to chase in earnest. They will aim to catch the break with a couple of kilometres to go and, although they occasionally miscalculate and the break stays away, they’re normally clinically accurate. Once caught, the lead-out trains will form but, along with the sprinters’ teams, the teams of GC contenders will also be vying for a position near the front of the field. They do this to try to avoid the crashes and mishaps that tend to plague the middle and rear of the bunch. If there is a crash in the final 3 km of the stage, the riders involved will be given the same time as the bunch of riders they were in at the time of the crash, as long as they finish the stage. With 1 km to go the riders pass under the Flame Rouge, a red flag hanging from an arch indicating there is 1km to go in that day's stage. Here the sprinters will be locked onto the wheels of the final riders in their lead-out and, depending on the final twists and turns of the course, ready to unleash their final sprint for the line with 200-300m remaining.

Rolling Stages

Rolling stages with multiple 3rd and 4th Category Climbs are the best chance for all-round riders and lesser teams to grab a stage win and, early on in the race, even a few days in the yellow jersey. A breakaway consisting of riders who aren’t perceived as a threat to the GC will be allowed to escape and, with most sprinters unable to stick with the bunch, over the hills, the chase won’t be as organised or focussed as on flat stages. The teams of GC contenders will be happy to see a lesser rider from another team in yellow as it means the onus won’t be on them to defend the jersey and they’ll be able to save energy for when the GC battle really begins.

Mountain Stages

Once the race hits the high mountains, especially if there’s a summit finish, expect to see the genuine GC contenders going head to head and climbers vying for the Polka Dot Jersey, battling for points. Teammates will ride a hard tempo on the lower slopes to thin out the field and, by the final ramps, only the race’s main men and specialist mountain goats will be left. Occasionally you’ll see a leader’s teammate attack early on during a mountainous stage. This isn’t a rebellion within the ranks but a common tactic. The rider up the road plans on the GC group catching him and, once they do, will be able to provide support for his team leader. Expect to see flurries of attacks as the finish draws near, as the contenders try to crack each other and gain time. At the other end of the field, sprinters, their lead-out men, riders having a tough time and domestiques who have given their all earlier in the day, form a bunch with the mutual goal of finishing the stage within the allotted cut-off time. This cut-off time is calculated by the commissaires based on the severity of the stage and is a percentage of the winner’s time. This bunch of survivors, known as the Grupetto or Autobus, is led by experienced riders who’ll constantly making pacing calculations, team rivalries are forgotten and they’ll descend like madmen at speeds topping 100 kph.

Time Trials

Along with high mountain stages, time trials have the potential to have the biggest impact on the GC. Riding solo and against the clock, riders are set off in reverse order at intervals of one minute, until the top ten riders on the GC, who have two minutes between them. This year’s Tour sees only one fairly flat 54 km time-trial but, as it’s the final stage before the riders head to Paris, could well decide the race. The pure climbers will be desperately trying to limit their losses, more all-round GC contenders consolidating their position or making a late charge for yellow and time trial specialists licking their lips at the chance of a Stage win.

The final stage

The final stage into Paris is unique, with the run in to Paris a celebratory parade including the leading rider sipping champagne and posing for press photos. The team of the yellow jersey traditionally lead the race into Paris and onto the Champs-Élysée. Once onto the 7 km lap, the gloves come off and, although a few breaks and solo escapees will chance their arms, it almost always comes down to a bunch sprint by the time the riders cross the finish line for the final time.

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