Le Tour de France: How It Works
The Tour de France is one of the most prestigious sporting competitions in the world, and is the most famous event in the world of cycling. It has been a source of glory and jubilation for some, and a source of pain and infamy for others. Indeed, the race has produced so many remarkable individuals throughout its history, that many people might not even realise that it’s actually a team sport. This is just one of many layers of complexity that is not immediately obvious to the casual viewer; but it is these intricacies that make the Tour a little difficult to understand but so intriguing to watch once you do.
Formed in 1903 to promote newspaper sales, The Tour de France has evolved into the most gruelling cycling race in the world. It is the oldest and the original Grand Tour, of which there are three. The race is made up of 21 stages spread over 23 days. This means there are 21 distinct day-long races, with 2 rest days. Each stage is generally 140-200 km, lasting between 4 and 6 hours. The stages take the riders all around France, and occasionally outside France, too, traversing both flat terrain and the mountains of France. The combination of uphill, downhill, and flat terrain, and the fact that the Tour will cover 3484 km in 23 days make it an extremely demanding test of endurance and versatility.
The race is contested by 22 teams of 8 riders each, and out of all 176 riders, only one emerges at the end of all 21 stages as the winner of the prized Yellow Jersey, le Maillot Jaune. The Yellow Jersey is awarded to the rider who completes all 21 stages in the lowest cumulative time; the jersey is one of the most iconic prizes in sport, and the recipient is deemed the winner of the Tour de France after the 21 stages. Through the race itself, the current leader wears the Yellow Jersey while riding, so you can always keep track of where he is in the big group of riders.
While the Yellow Jersey is what determines the winner, there are actually 3 main honours that the teams compete for throughout. There is the main Yellow Jersey competition, otherwise referred to as the GC (General Classification), which is determined by the lowest cumulative time over the 21 stages. It is important to note that all the riders who finish within the same group record the same time. Sometimes, over 100 riders will cross the line as a single group, so the first and last riders will still record the same time! The first three finishers of a stage also have a few seconds deducted from their overall time (bonus seconds). After the Yellow, the next most prominent competition is for the Green Jersey. This is essentially the sprinters’ competition. The top few finishers of each stage are awarded sprint points, with intermediate sprints midway through some stages awarding additional points. The rider with the most sprint points in the end is awarded the Green Jersey. There is also great prestige in winning a stage, which is why each stage becomes such an exciting race. There is always staunch competition for each stage win, often involving riders who are not high in the GC or sprint standings.
Additionally, there are some more minor honours. However, teams rarely focus on these, not even the team classification, but rather aim for the aforementioned individual honours. Out of 8 riders, each team will generally have 2 or 3 team leaders who are their strongest riders, who compete for either the Yellow or Green Jersey. The remaining riders, sometimes referred to as domestiques, are there only to support these main riders. These support riders get the lead riders into good positions in important stages, make sure they conserve energy, keep them refreshed, and act as pacers. The team plays a pivotal role in the individual rider’s success, and these team dynamics are also what guide the tactics of the race.
A Closer Look
The 21 stages generally play out with the riders arranging themselves in a formation known as the peloton (used to refer to the largest group of riders on the course. This peloton stays together until the riders at the front up the pace and those who can’t keep up drop off the back, thinning out the peloton. The winner of each stage emerges in one of two ways. The first is in bunch sprints; this is when the peloton approaches the finish together and there is a huge sprint for the line. The second is via breakaways; this is when a few riders attack and leave the peloton behind. The stages themselves are mostly categorised as either Flat or Mountain stages (with a few Hilly stages in between), depending on the amount and difficulty of climbs on the stage, and this affects how riders approach the stage.
There are two main obstacles that the environment challenges the riders with. The first is the wind. At the high speeds characteristic of the Tour (especially the flat stages, where sprints reach over 60 km/h) air resistance is a very significant force holding riders back. As a result, riding in other riders’ slipstream is a very important part of the Tour de France, which involves riding just behind another rider, so their body shields you from the wind resistance. This it allows a rider to conserve sizeable amounts of energy going at the same speed. That means it’s easier to ride in a group, with riders taking turns battling the wind out front and then taking rest behind the others. The larger the group, the greater the protection from the wind, and this is how the peloton forms. This is where a rider’s team is really important; the main rider will always be at the wheel of his teammates, being shielded from the wind so he can conserve energy until it really matters.
This is why the Flat stages that travel across vast distances of the picturesque French countryside, so often culminate in bunch sprints. The speeds are high, it is often difficult for breakaways to build large gaps on the peloton. When a few riders attack in a breakaway, they have to do a lot more work than the riders in the peloton. So, even if they stay ahead for most of a stage, if the peloton accelerates towards the line, the breakaway may not have any energy left to fight back. This is also why the main GC (Yellow Jersey) contenders generally stay in the peloton, tucked in behind their teammates, and don’t try too much on flat stages; the battle is hence more about the Green Jersey.
On the mountains, however, the riders face the second main obstacle: gravity. On the tremendous climbs of the Alps and the Pyrenees, the gradients are so steep that the speeds often drop below 20 km/h. At these relatively slow speeds, the effect of air resistance is significantly lesser. On flat road, someone drafting behind their teammates in the peloton could be doing almost 20%-30% less work than those leading the group (in terms of power output). On the mountains, the advantage provided by drafting is a lot less. Essentially, it’s every man for himself on the climb because riding in a group provides much less of an advantage. This is why sprinters who cannot be protected by their teammates suffer on the climbs. This is why breakaways have a much greater chance of success on the climbs. And this is why the climbs are where the race is ultimately won or lost. The strongest riders can really separate themselves from the rest of the group in on the climbs, so the mountain stages are where the GC contenders normally make their moves. The teams craft their tactics so as to protect the leader and get him into the best position, and on the climbs, teammates first push the peloton hard from the front, dropping all but the best riders. And towards the end of the race, typically on the really tough ascents, the main GC contender of the team makes their move and attacks, and many challengers often crack under the pressure, unable to keep up.
This is also why tactics and teamwork play such an important role. How the team paces themselves, not only through each day but over all 21 stages; how they manage their competition in the peloton; how they take care of their leader; how they time their attacks; these are ultimately crucial to the outcome of the race. A Tour de France cannot be won without the support and often sacrificial efforts of team-mates. Indeed, if a team leader crashes and the bike gets damaged, a teammate will often give them his own bike to continue, while he waits for the team car to bring him a replacement. It may seem harsh on the teammates, but they are all invested in the individual’s success, because that’s what it takes to win. It cannot be won alone. That is why the Tour de France is a team event.
The last small but not insignificant piece of the puzzle is the time trial. This is another type of stage, categorised by format rather than terrain, and it can be either a team or individual event. Team time trials are quite rare, whereas every edition of the Tour generally has one or two individual time trials. These are much shorter stages in terms of distance, but can hugely impact the overall competition. Each competitor rides alone, against the clock, left to fend for themselves, without tactical ingenuity or team support. The unique format means that riders may allowing gain or lose several precious seconds, sometimes even minutes, on competitors, making them very dramatic stages.
The 2020 Tour
The 2020 edition of le Tour de France will culminate along the famous Champs-Élysées on 20th September. With the last week of racing to go and only 6 stages remaining, the Tour really has reached the business end. The favourites have emerged in the GC, with Slovenian compatriots and friendly rivals Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar looking particularly strong on top. Roglic is the favourite to win and his team Jumbo-Visma have certainly looked strongest so far, but Pogacar is currently just 40 seconds behind. Defending champion Egan Bernal was only 59 seconds behind the lead until yesterday, where he lost over 7 minutes, a true testament to just how punishing a mountain stage in the Alps can be. There are another 5 riders within 2 minutes of Pogacar in 2nd place so they have an outside chance. But it seems likely to be a fierce duel between the two Slovenians for the Yellow Jersey. Irishman Sam Bennett is currently in the lead for the green Jersey, but It seems that the sprinters’ competition will also end in a duel, with a battle brewing between Bennett and 7-time winner of the Green Jersey, Peter Sagan, who is 45 points behind. Bennett has also looked vulnerable on climbing, so there could be major drama if he struggles to finish the mountain stages. Overall, with 3 consecutive mountain stages and 2 flat stages still remaining, plus an individual time trial for the penultimate stage, the 2020 Tour de France is set up for an enthralling conclusion, one that is certainly worth keeping an eye on.