How le Tour de France works – everything beginners want to know

I’ve been asked this question so many times this week, and now I just heard it asked by the guest on tonight’s The Daily Show.  Why didn’t you school him Jon, why?  But I have to give the daily show credit for Monday night’s episode about Lance.  It was pretty funny, the epitome of “tongue in cheek” humor.  I’d love to see Lance as a guest on the show.

If you wonder why I care about le tour so much, I was an exchange student in France when Lance won his first tour stage (the year before he found out he had cancer).  I’d collected many newspaper and magazine articles about him while I was over there.  When I got home, I put his first stage win photo up on my wall in my bedroom (I was 16), knowing one day he would be my hero.  So, that’s why I wear the yellow armband – because Lance is my hero.

Questing: “How can Lance not win everyday or most days, but win le Tour overall?”

Answer: Because le Tour is based on overall time.

Wikipedia Answer:

My Long Answer:  There are usually 180 riders participating in the tour each year.  Maybe 150 of them cross the finish line in Paris – I’m too lazy to look up the actual numbers.  But people usually drop out of the race because they get hurt or exhausted and have to abandon the race – you try riding 100 miles at one time, much less 100 miles a day for 20 days.   There may even be a time you have to finish each stage by; otherwise, you get dropped.  But if there is such a rule, you don’t hear about it often because none of the top riders are in this risk – unless there’s a crash and they get hurt.

These athletics are in such top condition that whenever the race is flat, the top 80% (once again I’m making up numbers) finish at the same time.  But introduce the mountains, the different categories (lower numbers mean more difficulty, until it is beyond category, meaning I would have a hard time trying just to walk up that hill), and the day after day battles of trying to get up those hills, the race becomes interesting.  Only your top 5-10% will be able to stay together, and even after a while, they’ll fall away from one another.  This is where Lance excels.  “The Look” picture from Stage 10 of the 2001 tour says it all, where he sees everyone behind him in agony, stares them down for a good several seconds, and then just explodes away.

Just because a cyclist wins a stage one day, or even a mountain stage, by a large amount of time, doesn’t mean that he’ll be able to produce the same amount of energy the next day.  Teams pick their battles very, very well in deciding which day their primary rider will go all out to win a stage.  What causes Lance to always finish in first place day after day is that he always sticks with his rivals on Overall Classification (GC).  And if someone starts winning stage after stage, he’ll most likely become a “threat” to Lance, and he’ll get marked by Discovery as someone Lance needs to stay with.  And if this threat were to breakaway, Lance would chase him down.

For some teams, their entire job is to just win one stage.  Or maybe it is to do an effective breakaway such that their sponsor gets as much air time as possible.

Each team has a primary rider whose job it is to achieve whatever the team’s goal is; whether it is to win the stage or win the tour.  All other team members (7 or 8 – I’m so lazy not looking up numbers) do whatever it takes to help the primary rider achieve the goal.  These guys will go back to the team car to get food, water, etc.  They will also draft in front of the primary rider for as long as they can and provide whatever assistance.  Consider what happened to Lance in 2004 tour.  He’s handlebar got caught on a spectator’s bag and he crashed.  His teammate immediately jumped off of his bike and ran over to help Lance get back up and going.

Drafting – another concept people don’t realize has a major role in cycling.  Drafting is when you get so close behind the person in front of you that you get pulled along in their air.  We’re talking about being an inch away from the person’s rear wheel.  You can feel the same effect in a car drafting behind an 18-wheeler, although I do not recommend you practice this.  But using this scenario, you would experience better gas mileage.  Drafting in cycling: good.  Drafting in sailing: bad (you don’t want to get bad air, or you won’t have enough air in your sails, and you’ll slow down).  The role of the team member is to allow their primary rider to draft behind them, so they can conserve their energy for the very end.

You’ll notice on time trials how the race car and motorcycles have to stay very far in front of the cyclist; otherwise, drafting may occur, providing an unfair advantage to that cyclist.  Each rider must face the wind; no drafting allowed on time trials.

And lastly, what the jerseys mean:

White – this is a new jersey introduced in the past several years.  It is awarded to the fastest overall rider under the age of 25.

Green – best sprinter.  Throughout the tour, there are different “checkpoints” that the first person to get past wins a certain number of points.  The person with the most points throughout the tour wears the green jersey.

Polka Dot – King of the Mountain – best climber.  Usually based on a points system like the Green jersey.

Yellow Jersey – see Lance.  Overall leader in the tour.  If the overall leader is a young rider, he’s awarded both jerseys, but he wears the yellow on the road

Comments (9)

  1. mdoctor says:

    very interesting 🙂

  2. Neil Cowburn says:

    Drafting is a very cool phenomenon. I remember an incident a few years when I was out on a 60-mile ride that I managed to attain a speed of 25mph up a 10% gradient because I was drafting a farm vehicle. And because I was cycling in the still air behind the vehicle, there was virtually no effort required. I certainly amused the driver!

  3. MSDNArchive says:

    Each team starts with 9 riders. Most teams do not end with all of their riders. I think this year that only one or two teams had all of their riders in Paris. Discovery was not one, unfortunately.

    The riders have to finish within a time limit. It depends on the terrain and the distance, but it’s normally 10-25% of the stage winners time. Riders do miss the cut. In fact, some riders that are hurt will attempt to race knowing that they will miss the cut, rather than abandon the stage. Getting cut "looks better" than abandoning.

    Drafting is huge. Drafting reduces the amount of effort of the draftee by about 30% at speeds over 16mph. (The actual benefit increases as the speed increases.) When climbing, drafting has little to now value. However, you will see riders in drafting-like positions. They aren’t getting a benefit from drafting–they are using the person in front of them to pace them up the hill.

    For all of the jerseys there is a pariority order to account for duplicates (which can happen pretty often). I’m pretty sure it’s Yellow, Green, Polka Dot, White. So, if you have the the Yellow and Green jersey, the second place green jersey points leader wears the jersey, on down the line. This is why Lance was in the Green Jersey on day 2 of the tour this year.

    The White jersey was actually re-introduced after a bit of a vacation.

  4. saraford says:

    That’s right, i totally forgot about lance being in the green jersey on the second day.


  5. Brian says:

    Here’s a nice little satirical article about this years TDF.

  6. Will Barns says:

    Great stuff Sarah!

    I’ve been hooked on cycling for the last couple of years.

    I believe the more you watch the tour, the more you learn about it and enjoy it. It really is like having multiple races going on all at once. Indiviual races / team races. Sprinting and long distance races.

    If you readers want to really appreciate what those riders do, just get your bike out (you do own a bike, right?), find a medium sized hill, and ride up as fast a you can. Notice how tired you are and remember that the next time you watch the tour riders do the same thing but faster on steeper climbs for much longer periods of time, over several days.

    I can’t imagine how tough the tour is on the human body. Basically, these riders’ bodies are worn down at the end of the day and they must restore them for the next day. A 100 mile day for these guys is a walk in the park, but they’re asked to go much farther and over many, many days.

    One final note — you can draft in swimming, too! I’m into triathlons now and learned this little known fact at my first one.

  7. jessica says:

    why is france able to produce huge amount of food?

  8. Becky smith says:


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