Friday, July 3, 2009

Beginner's Guide to the Tour de France

Just one more day till the Tour de France! I can't wait!

The official Tour de France website is great this year. Be sure to click "show the video" under the route map, and then check out the stage-by-stage section. The "details" tab beside each stage gives you a route map, photos, and facts about the towns along the way. You can also pick up the official guide published by VeloNews at your local bookstore.

What an incredible route this year, beginning with a time trial in Monaco! I'm so looking forward to that tomorrow. And the Tour ends with a phenomenal penultimate stage ... a mountaintop finish on one of the most feared and legendary mountains of them all: the ghostly Mount Ventoux. In between, we get to watch the race weave its way to Barcelona, climb up and over the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, and swing into Switzerland before tackling the Alps.

If you're new to the Tour, here's a little advice: you don't need to understand it all to enjoy it. Just dive right in, experience the wonderful scenery and colors of the Tour, and little by little the mechanics of the race will make sense. But in case it helps, here are some basics....

The Teams

Pro bicycling is a team sport. Each team is named after its principal sponsor, and one or two riders are generally chosen as the team leaders (although this can change during the course of the tour, leading to some interesting intra-team rivalries). The other team members assist the leaders through the physics of "drafting". Team leaders "draft" off their teammates by riding inches away from their back wheels. The wake of the rider in front forms a slight area of low pressure and wind that carries the rider behind along, enabling him or her to use up to about 30% less energy (check out the excellent Science of Cycling article). Team members also gather in front of their leader to form barriers against the wind, and they'll drop back to their team cars to grab bottles of water.

For much of the race, the majority of riders gather together in a huge group called the peloton. This is a place of relative safety where the riders draft off each other to help them get through each stage. Throughout the stage, riders will try breaking away from the peloton ... and if they can last to the finish line, great! That's a real achievement, because the peloton has a lot of power to swallow up intrepid riders. There's nothing more thrilling than a lone rider just a few kilometers from the finish, giving all he's got to fend off the ominous shadow of the peloton looming behind him.

The Stages

The tour is divided into 21 "stages". At the end of every day, the rider who comes in first is the "stage winner". Most riders have little hope of winning the entire tour, so winning a stage is one of the greatest moments in their careers. Stages can be flat -- favoring the sprinters, or mountainous -- favoring the climbers.

In most stages, the riders start off in a big bunch, and they ride bikes that look very much like those you can buy at your local bike shop (albeit a lot more expensive!). But each year, two or three stages are designated as "time trials". In these, the riders leave the starting gate one at a time and race against the clock. They are allowed to wear very wacky looking helmets and ride even wackier looking bikes ... all to increase their aerodynamics. For one day alone, there is a "team time trial" stage where entire teams leave the start line together. This is a thing of beauty! Through a carefully choreographed ballet of drafting, each team courses through the streets as one graceful, aerodynamic entity.

The Jerseys

Tour leaders are awarded different colored jerseys to wear during the race. The grandest jersey of them all is the Yellow Jersey, awarded to the rider with the best overall time so far (a.k.a. the General Classification time). If you're still wearing yellow by the end of Stage 21 in Paris ... congratulations! ... you've just won the Tour de France. Pretty simple, huh?

But there are other jerseys too. The Green Jersey is given to the best sprinter of the tour. "Sprints" are pre-designated sections of the flat stages. The rider with the best times during these sections wins the green jersey. Riders who are known as sprinters aren't out to win the entire tour. They specialize in short boosts of energy, and they'll very happily drop to the back of the pack during the mountain stages (where sprinters and worn-out riders group together in a mini-peloton of shared misery called Le Autobus). Similarly, riders looking to win the yellow jersey don't waste their energy on sprints. They'll gladly leave the green jersey for other riders to enjoy.

My favorite jersey is the Polka-Dot Jersey. This is awarded to the rider with the best time over the mountains. Each mountain is rated for difficulty from Category 1 to 4 (1 being the most difficult). But .... and this is so wonderfully French ... there are a few climbs that are so grueling, so positively horrible, that they are labeled Hors Catagorie, or "beyond classification". Mt. Ventoux is one such monstrosity.

And there you have it! All the rest I'll leave for you to discover. You can catch the Tour on the Versus Channel everyday. They have two of the best commentators in all of sports: Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (see my April 11 post). "Phil and Paul" usually do the morning live coverage, and they're supplemented by other commentators during the evening's "Expanded Primetime Coverage" (like Bob Roll, also great). So we'll see what Versus plans for this year, but they usually do an excellent job. You can see the complete schedule here.

Enjoy Le Tour!

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