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Beginner's guide to the Tour de France
For a pro cyclist, the ultimate accolade is to be picked by their team to ride the Tour de France. But most will finish hours behind the eventual winner - if they finish at all. Here’s our beginner’s guide to the Tour de France, its route, the riders and the contenders.
The Tour de France is tough. This year’s race covers 3,349.8km (2,081 miles) with over 48,000m of climbing, spread across 21 stages with just 3 rest days.
In the 2021 Tour the winner, Tadej Pogačar, completed the 3,414km of the race in just under 83 hours - an average speed of over 40km/h. The slowest finisher, Tim Declercq was over five hours behind and of the 184 starters 43 dropped out before the end of the race in Paris.
The Tour de France, more than the other three week grand tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, follows a tried and tested formula.
Often, as this year, it will start off with a time trial stage where riders race individually over a shortish course of under 20km. That’s followed by a week of flattish stages which favour sprinters or breakaways. Northern or North-West France are popular start locations.
This year’s race starts with three stages in Denmark. Three initial showcase stages abroad are often a feature of the race, like those in the UK in 2014. As this year, a start abroad usually necessitates a rest day for the race to relocate onto French soil.
Towards the end of the first week, there’s usually a more challenging day often with a mountain top finish, like this year’s Stage Seven climb to La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges mountains of North-East France. There’s normally a rest day on the following Monday.
La Planche des Belle Filles is a fairly recent addition to the Tour route, first used in 2012 when Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner of the race. Whereas for many years all racing was on tarmacked roads, the Tour now often includes a stage raced over sections of cobbled roads, like this year’s Stage Five from Lille to Arenberg. There have also been sections of gravel roads included in more recent Tours; this year the stage to La Planche des Belle Filles includes the unpaved upper section of that climb.
The second week will take in either the Pyrenees or, as this year, the Alps for two or three days of high mountain stages, often including summit finishes. They’re a chance for the contenders for overall victory to show their form and potentially put time into their rivals. This year's race takes in the most famous of them all, the 21 hairpin climb to the Stage 12 finish at Alpe d'Huez.
The race invariably visits both high mountain ranges but the order in which it tackles them tends to alternate year to year. After the mountain stages, a series of flattish or lumpy stages take the race across the central south of France before a final rest day at the start of the third week.
Again, there’s a set formula that the third week usually follows. After the rest day, there are two or three high mountain stages, this year in the Pyrenees, a flatter stage then a longer time trial on the penultimate stage.
For years, the final stage has started in the outskirts of Paris, riding into the centre for laps of a finishing circuit on the Champs-Élysées. It’s a tradition that the race leader isn’t challenged on this stage, which starts with a processional ride with photo ops and the leader sipping champagne. The racing starts once the riders reach the Champs-Élysées, with a chance for the sprinters to gain the kudos of the final stage win.
22 teams of eight riders will start the Tour - 176 riders in total. That comprises all 18 of the first division WorldTour teams as well as four teams from the lower divisions of pro cycling who are invited to participate by the race organiser, the Amaury Sport Organisation or ASO.
Each team will have a leader, although not all will be aiming for overall victory. There may also be other specialists in the team like a time trial expert or a sprinter, but the focus will be on the leader, with the balance of the team made up of riders there to help him meet his objectives - the domestiques.
There’s a big range in team budgets, with the best funded teams like Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma tending to hoover up the top riders and dominating the overall competition. Less dominant teams will look for stage victories or their riders may feature in breakaways, where the smaller number of riders at the front of the race will ensure media coverage.
Races Within Races
General Classification contenders
The biggest prize is the race for the yellow jersey, worn by the overall race leader. The jersey almost always changes hands several times during the race. An initial time trial will often mean that it’s worn for a few days by a time trial specialist like Filippo Ganna of Ineos Grenadiers.
The first week’s flatter stages may mean that it’s passed to a puncheur like Julian Alaphilippe of QuickStep Alpha Vinyl (although it's not certain he'll start this year's Tour following an early season crash) or Mathieu van der Poel of Alpecin-Deceuninck or a sprinter like Fabio Jakobsen, also of QuickStep Alpha Vinyl.
Expect the contenders for the overall race win, the General Classification or GC riders, to first show their colours at the end of the first week on the uphill finish to La Planche des Belles Filles. They’ll likely dominate the race through the mountainous stages of the second and third weeks, with further strong showings in the Alps and Pyrenees.
GC riders have to be good at everything, but ability to climb and win high mountain stages is key to building a high overall position. They also need to be good time triallists - a poor race against the clock can see them drop down the overall standings.
Although the focus is on the overall race between the General Classification contenders, there’s considerable kudos to be gained from a stage win. Flatter stages with wide, flat finishes are usually the domain of the sprinters. Powerful riders, they can put out prodigious power numbers in the race for the line.
But they can usually only sustain that power for a short period, so they rely on a lead out train of other riders from their team to bring them to the front of the race at the right point to unleash their final sprint. Some teams will be built around their sprinter, with Mark Cavendish being the master of the sprint stage for many years, helping him to rack up 34 stage victories over nine Tours de France. It looks likely that Cavendish won’t be riding this year’s Tour, following a surprise call-up in 2021 that gained him four stage wins.
With high speeds and many riders jostling for position, sprint finishes are dangerous and it’s not uncommon to see mass pile-ups on the approach to the line. If a rider is caught up in a crash within 3km of the finish, race rules mean that he is given the same time as the bunch, so highly placed riders on general classification aren’t penalised.
Sprinters also have their own competition: the Points Classification with the leader wearing the green jersey. Points are awarded based on finishing position for the highest placed riders on flat stages, while all stages also have intermediate sprints where riders can pick up a smaller number of additional points.
Sprinters don’t fare so well on mountain stages and often they’ll retire from the race ahead of runs of high mountain stages if they’ve won a stage or two already. They’ll typically form a bunch, called the Autobus, and ride mountain stages together, way behind the stage leaders.
All stages have to be completed within a time limit, based on the stage winner's time though, so the straggling riders have to be careful to arrive at the stage finish inside this or they risk being eliminated.
Another group of riders who aren’t good enough climbers to win the overall race but have an opportunity to win less mountainous stages are the puncheurs. They’re riders who can put out enough power to escape from the bunch or win the shorter uphill finishes typically found on stages early in the race and hilly stages mid-race.
They’ll often have the power to win out ahead of sprinters on trickier, less flat finishes too. A classic example is Peter Sagan, who has used his ability to win punchy finishes and intermediate sprints to win the points classification at seven Tours, as well as 12 stages.
There’s another competition for the climbers: the King of the Mountains, with the leader wearing the polka dot jersey. There will be designated climbs on road stages with the first few riders to the top gaining KOM points.
Climbs are graded from category 4 up to category 1, but a few of the largest climbs in the high mountains get an HC (Hors Categorie - beyond categorisation) rating. The points available differ with the categorisation.
Although often the domain of pure climbers, the GC winner may take the King of the Mountains competition on the way to overall victory - as Pogačar has for the last two years.
Meaning servant, domestique is a dismissive term for riders who will be highly competent in their own right to be riding at WorldTour level and justify their inclusion in the team. But their ambitions will be suppressed in favour of the team leader. Witness the second-placed finisher in the 2021 Tour, Jonas Vingegaard, who was riding as a mountain domestique for Jumbo-Visma’s leader Primož Roglič, before the latter retired following a crash.
Domestiques will help protect and position their leader and shepherd him through the race, bringing up water bottles and food and pacing him back to the bunch is he has a crash, a puncture or a mechanical problem. They’ll also help set the pace by riding at the front of the bunch when needed.
Some domestiques will have specialist roles too. GC contenders will typically have a number of climbing domestiques who can stay with them, provide assistance and help set the pace in the high mountains and potentially win stages themselves. Sprint teams will have domestiques who can form a lead-out train for their sprinter leader.
Top contenders again this year will be the two Slovenians Tadej Pogačar of UAE Team Emirates and Primož Roglič of Jumbo-Visma. With Tour wins in 2020 and 2021 and aged just 23, Pogačar has a string of other race wins under his belt already this year, winning all the stage races he's started and dominating the five stage Tour of Slovenia that finished on 19 June.
Roglič has the stronger team though, with Vingegaard and Sep Kuss providing major support in the mountains and Wout van Aert able to win mountain stages, sprints and time trials, although he’s recently injured his leg in training and so a race start is now in doubt. Having crashed out of last year’s Tour and lost the yellow jersey to Pogačar in a disastrous penultimate stage time trial at the 2020 Tour, Roglič will be looking to make amends this year. Vingegaard too is a contender for this year’s overall victory if Roglič falters.
Ineos Grenadiers and its predecessor, Team Sky, dominated the Tour for most of the last decade, but its current GC star Egan Bernal is still recuperating from a nasty crash in January. That leaves 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas as his team’s potential leader. He’s just won the Tour de Suisse, so although at age 36 he’s old for a GC contender, he shouldn’t be ruled out. He’s accident-prone though, so a crash later in the race could be his downfall.
Ineos Grenadiers has another string to its bow though with Colombian climber Dani Martínez, who has had a number of good results this year including third overall at Paris-Nice. It’s likely that the team will look to their respective early race performance to decide on its overall leader.
And many Tours bring up some surprise contenders, whose heroic performances put them up there as a candidate for the overall win. Although often they’ll have a poor stage and drop back towards the end of the race, they may wear the yellow jersey and dominate the headlines mid-race. In 2019 Julian Alaphilippe wore yellow for a total of 14 stages before losing the race lead to eventual winner Egan Bernal on stage 19. The Tour is always full of surprises.