The Tour De France, a Primer

Now that we’re more than two weeks into this year’s race, I thought I’d write a short primer on the basics of what is going on in the race so you all can keep it in mind for next year.

I know I should have done this before, but I was busy. Sue me. The Tour De France is a three week race organized into stages. Each stage goes from a start point to an end point. The position of the riders in the overall classification of the race is computed by the cumulative time they take to finish each stage. In addition, there are various points in the race where a rider can pick up “time bonuses” of a few seconds which reduce the total time for that rider for that stage.

There are three major types of stages:

1. Road stages: the riders all start at once and the time is measured from there until the end line.

2. Individual Time Trial: the riders start in intervals and must ride alone. The total time from the start to the end is the time for that rider for the stage.

3. Team Time Trial: the teams start in intervals, must bring five riders to the end line, and every rider gets the time of the fifth rider across the line.

Sometimes the ITT is on flat land. Sometimes it is uphill (like yesterday’s stage).

The leader of the overall wears the Yellow Jersey so you can pick him out easily. In addition, there are several sub-races going on for other jersies:

1. The Green Jersey: this is given out to the rider who gets the most “sprint points”. You get these by finishing each stage close to the front and also at various intermediate towns in flat stages. Generally sprinters go after this jersey.

2. The Polka-dot Jersey: this is given to the rider with the most “mountain points”. You get these by being the first over the hills.

3. White Jersey: best time for a young rider.

That’s basically it. To make sense of each stage, you have to know what the goals of the teams are and some basics about tactics. Day by day, the main things you need to understand about bike racing tactics can be summed up in two sentences:

- You do less work drafting.

- It’s hard to chase people down alone.

Examples: When the long breakaway gets caught at the end for the bunch sprint, it’s because the big group could share the work in the wind better than the small breakaway. Similarly, if you have two people on the same team in a break, they can trade turns jumping off the front of the group and forcing the group to chase them down. This gets the group tired, giving the pair on the same team a better chance to win. Note that in an earlier stage of this year’s race, the Euskatel team completely botched this tactic when they had two guys in the final break and let victory slip away from them.

If you keep these things in mind, and watch what Lance Armstrong’s team does, you’ll note that they have been almost perfect tactically:

- Over the flat roads, they protect Lance and keep him near the front and always behind someone else doing the work. He doesn’t have to waste any more energy than necessary to get to the end of the day.

- Over the mountains, they keep riders with him in every important group over all the big hills until he rides alone to victory at the end. Lance was never alone and therefore never at a disadvantage.

- They completely dominated the team time trial.

Now, to win the race, Lance still has to be among the best climbers in the race and among the best time trial riders in the race, but having the awesome team around him certainly makes his job easier.

Next time: another short bit on what goes on in the various stages day by day.