Today (that’s today as I’m writing this AND as I post it—woo-hoo!) is the first day of the Tour de France. I mentioned to a friend that I was looking forward to the race, and he said, “Oh, is that this week?”
“No,” I replied, “It’s this month.”
That’s when I realized that, for most Americans, the Tour de France is a subject that could benefit from some explanationizing.
The Tour de France is, without question, the most difficult sporting event in the universe. Imagine an event that demands so much energy, participants have to take in several thousand calories before they start each day, a few thousand more after they finish, and about 400 calories an hour while they are actively participating in it.
Picture an event so grueling that each year 189 to 198 people start it, but only 140 to 180 finish. The rest give up, either because they can’t take the punishment any more, or because they are in the hospital with broken bones and various other injuries.
Last year’s Tour was 2,150 miles long. The winner, Alberto Contador, finished in 85 hours, 48 minutes, and 35 seconds. The runner-up, Andy Schleck, came in at 85 hours, 52 minutes, and 46 seconds. Imagine racing for 2,150 miles and losing by 4 minutes.
Nothing else in professional sports even comes close.
OK, so Contador and Schleck rode their bikes for almost 86 hours, but (in the words of Steven Wright) not in a row. The race last year was divided into—
No. Wait. Y’know what? I’m bored with last year’s race. I saw it already. Let’s talk about the race that starts today.
The Race that Starts Today
The course covers 3,642 km, or 2,263 miles. It’s divided into 21 days of racing with 2 rest days thrown in the middle. (Of course, “rest” is a relative term. All the racers will ride for 25 to 50 miles on each of the rest days. If they didn’t, their bodies would seize up tighter than…um…a proverbial…thing that’s…really tight.)
In theory, the course constitutes a tour—in English, a turn, a spin, a revolution, a ride—around France. Every other year it goes in a clockwise direction, and the other every other year it runs counterclockwise. But it’s never really a continuous ride all the way around France. There are two reasons for this.
First, it’s rare that a stage starts in the exact place that the previous stage ended. Usually they start one town over. Sometimes, though, riders take a train or even a plane from the end of one stage to the start of the next, which I think is totally bogus.
Second, they don’t stay in France. They often veer into neighboring countries, such as Italy, Germany, or Spain for anywhere from a few miles to a couple of days. This year’s race starts in the Netherlands, heads into Belgium on Day 2, and won’t enter France until Day 4. In 2007, the Tour started in London, and riders took the Channel Tunnel (on a train, not on their bikes) to France after Day 2 (again, bogus).
Third, the race always ends in Paris, which is nearly as close to the middle of the country as it is to the edge.
Yeah, that’s three reasons. Sue me.
In order to win the Tour de France, a rider has to be good at the time trials (in which racers ride one at a time against the clock), excel at riding up mountains (the Tour goes through both the Alps and the Pyrenees), and have a good team around him (bike racing is very much a team sport, but explanationizing that would take a whole post unto itself).
Very few riders have all these qualifications. (Of the 198 riders starting today, only 8 or 10 are given any shot at all at winning.) So the race organizers have inserted races within the race for some of the other guys.
Competitions Within the Race
For example, points are awarded to the first number of riders who make it up each hill or mountain in the race. At the top of a one-or two-mile climb, there might be 3 points for the first guy across, 2 for the second and 1 for the third. But an Alp or a Pyrenee might hold 15 or 20 points for the first guy and count down from there. At the end of the race, the rider with the most points is named King of the Mountains (seriously).
Meanwhile, a separate set of points are awarded in a competition called, cleverly enough, the “points competition.” At a couple of places along each stage, lines are drawn across the road. The first three guys across each line get 6, 4, and 2 points. In addition, the first rider to finish a stage might get 20, 25, or 35 points (depending on the terrain of that stage), the second finisher gets a couple fewer points, the third fewer still, and so on until there are no points left.
As you can see, there are many more points at the end of a stage than there are in the middle of one. So most of these points go to specialists called sprinters, who break out of the pack and tear hell-bent toward the finish line with no regard for energy expenditure or personal safety. At the end of the race, the rider with the most of these points is named the winner of the points competition. (“King of the Mountains” sounds pretty good now, doesn’t it?)
In addition, teams compete against each other as teams. The times of the top three riders on each team are added together, and that number becomes the team’s time. At the end of the race, the winning team gets an award, too.
I’d guess that the average American, if asked to say something about the Tour de France, would be able to come up with just two two-word phrases: “Lance Armstrong” and “yellow jersey.” At the end of each stage, the rider who is leading the overall race (which is called the “general classification”) is awarded a yellow jersey, which he wears in the following day’s stage. This allows the spectators (and the officials, in the pre-TV days) to see where the leader is.
The other competitions have their own jerseys, too. The leader of the points competition wears a green jersey, and the leader of the King of the Mountains competition wears a white jersey with red polka dots (an unfortunate choice, if you ask me (which no one does)). The rider under 26 years old who is ranked highest in the general classification fares better—he wears a plain white jersey.
The team that’s leading the team race doesn’t get special jerseys, but they do get special numbers to wear. The ordinary numbers are black on a white background, but the fastest team wears numbers with a bright yellow background.
Also, at the end of each stage, a group of race officials and journalists choose one rider who they think was the most aggressive on that stage. The next day, he wears a number with a red background.
If You’re Interested
I’m not trying to proselytize here. I realize that for most Americans, bike racing is about as exciting as professional soccer. And to be honest, some stages just consist of a whole lot of guys riding down the road, which I find boring, too. But mountains, sprints, and crashes do liven up some of the stages.
So if you’re interested in watching a stage or two, and you’re in the U.S., a channel called Versus has pretty much non-stop coverage. (They do a live show in the morning, which they rebroadcast until 8:00 PM, at which point they put out a new broadcast of that same day’s stage.) If you want to read about this year’s tour, you can do so at the Versus website. Bicycling magazine’s coverage is pretty good, too.