The Tour de France, Explained

Millions of people worldwide are transfixed each and every year as the annual Tour de France is run.  In case you aren’t one of these people, and you don’t really get what the fuss is about, or maybe you just don’t understand the rules and terminology, here is a quick primer so that you can join in on the fun this year!

The Tour de France started in 1903 when a French newspaper wanted to drum up some publicity and attract a larger readership to their publication.  The idea to have a multi-day, multi-stage cycling race came from young Géo Lefèvre, who was the cycling reporter for the newspaper.  The idea was altered and molded into a reasonable facsimile of what we see today: a race that traversed through small towns in France, taking cyclists a few weeks of grueling rides to complete.  The first race was a success, as it has obviously led to over one hundred years of tradition, and it also increased the readership of the newspaper, so it fulfilled its original objective.

Since then, the Tour de France has evolved, but much of it has also stayed the same.  Towns compete each year to be added as way points along the Tour de France route, and are selected by a committee to join the prestigious ranks of those who have hosted the race for a day.  The race still attracts riders from all around the world, although the prestige (and money) of the Tour de France brings a much wider variety of cyclists than in the first years of the race.  The race itself is also still a marvelous example of variety, as the race is split up into mountain stages large and small, hilly sections of road, and flat sections for quick sprints.

Many fans who are new to the Tour de France don’t understand why one rider is wearing a yellow jersey, and why sometimes a new rider is wearing it the next day (don’t worry, they wash it first).  Well, the yellow jersey is famous as being worn by the current overall race leader.  Therefore, wearing the yellow jersey is not only a great honor, but a great responsibility.  It essentially paints a target on your back, and reminds all the other cyclists what they are racing for.  If you are wearing the yellow jersey, you’d best be ready to defend it!  Other jerseys include the green jersey, the white jersey, and even the polka dot jersey.  They are awarded to the race’s point leader, best young (under twenty five years old) rider, and best climber, respectively.

It was mentioned earlier that the race is split into stages.  The stages are sections of the race that are traversed in a single day, which combine to make the race as a whole.  Riders do get a break at the end of each stage- they’re only human, after all- only to continue the next morning at the next stage.  The 2008 Tour de France features twenty one stages.  The riders also are recipients of two rest days, which are spaced out throughout the twenty three day event.

Cyclists often compete as part of a team.  This may seem strange, as cycling would appear to be an individual sport, but teams have been part of the Tour de France for a long time.  Teams can actually help each other quite a bit in a race, by pacing each other, blocking off the competition, or “slip streaming” for maximum speed by riding directly behind one another.  During some years, the teams were based on the national origin of riders, but now the teams are organized by sponsors.

At the end of the Tour de France, the riders’ finishing positions are determined by simply adding each rider’s time on each stage together to get a total race time.  The cyclist with the lowest overall time is the winner of the Tour de France, and joins a great tradition of legendary athletes dating back over one hundred years.  Make sure to follow the Tour de France this year, as history is made yet again on the roads of France!

Planning the Route of the Tour de France

For a race with the tradition and amazing legacy of the Tour de France, as much effort must go into the preparation of each year’s edition as the riders put into finishing the race in first place.  The Tour de France is famous for its length, its variety, and the grueling demands it places on those who attempt to conquer it, as well as the other competitors.  Therefore, the race organizers must put a lot of effort and time planning each year’s race, to ensure that each installment is worthy of the reputation that the Tour de France has earned over the last 105 years.

There are many things that have to be taken into account when planning the yearly route of the Tour de France.  For one, stages must combine to make a certain overall length that will be similar to races past.  At the same time, there must be a variety within the stage types, with small, medium and large climbs to go with sprints and individual time trials.  It’s important that the course be balanced, so that neither the climbers, sprinters or the time trial specialists have an unfair advantage over the other racers.

One of the most charming aspects of the Tour de France is the fact that the race highlights French towns that otherwise would never get the kind of global attention that they do during the race.  The Tour de France is the one time of year that a relatively small community can become, for one day at least, the center of the cycling universe.  The experience can be overwhelming, amazing, and a dream come true all at the same time for the towns involved.

To even be considered as a town that will be part of the Tour de France’s route, towns must submit their request and be part of a long and sometimes tiring selection process.  Meetings are had, town leaders give their best arguments for their inclusion and votes are performed, among other things that have to be done to decide which towns will be home to Tour de France stops.  The decision can be a difficult one, as towns have to be able to accommodate all of the hoopla and saturation that can occur from being part of such a huge and historical event.

Meanwhile, the individual stages must be combined to make a meaningful whole and to give the race a cohesive feel.  The Tour de France has to be planned carefully, so that riders don’t have several stages in a row of huge mountain climbs or sprints.  Also, rest days have to be scheduled in, and in a town that can accommodate the swell of humanity that will come and go over a 24 to 48 hour period as a result of the Tour de France stopping by.

It’s also important that the race itself not be a stale retread of the ones from years past.  Each Tour de France has to respect the tradition of the race while creating its own identity simultaneously.  For this reason, some towns are a part of the race seemingly year after year, while each year, the race organizers attempt to add some new flavors to the proverbial stew to keep things fresh.

As you can see, planning the Tour de France is quite a daunting task.  Although the people behind the scenes will never get the fanfare and attention that the riders who traverse the race receive, they are in many ways just as important when considering the outcome of the race and how entertaining it is.

The Tour de France: The First Extreme Sports Event?

These days, with skateboarders and BMX bikers doing backflips and covering 50 foot gaps from giant ramps, it’s probably hard for youngsters to think of the Tour de France as a dangerous sport.  However, in the golden tradition of the Tour de France, there have been three tragic deaths due to injuries sustained while racing.  While it’s not very pleasant to talk about the tragedies that have occurred during the most prestigious cycling race in the world, it does highlight the dangers that cyclists face, the amount of skill that is required by the sport of cycling, and the importance of safety measures in the sport itself.

The first cyclist to die during the Tour de France didn’t actually perish as a result of the race itself.  Instead, French rider Adolphe Helière drowned during a rest day.  The site of the tragedy was the French Riviera, where Helière was resting and relaxing before heading back out on the course to finish the race.

It was 1935 before the sometimes treacherous, always challenging Tour de France saw the death of a rider during the actual event itself.  In a tragic and terrible twist of events, Spanish cyclist Francisco Cepeda passed away after falling down a ravine in the Col du Galibier stage.  His skull fractured, Cepeda sadly died three days after the fall.

We often think of performance enhancing drugs and other methods of cheating as a problem of modern sports exclusively, but the next death at the Tour de France was directly related to the issue, and it happened way back in 1967.

English cyclist Tom Simpson died of heart failure that was brought on by the combination of the conditions, the stress on his body from the demanding race, and his use of amphetamines.  Simpson was the first English rider to ever wear the yellow jersey, and his determination showed through even on the day he passed away.

Exhausted, dehydrated, and suffering from the heat and his amphetamine use, he fell against an embankment as he couldn’t go on during the climb of Mont Ventoux.  Even though he was barely conscious, he insisted on being put back onto his bike, and he managed to ride on for several hundred meters before he feel unconscious.  He passed away when he arrived at the hospital.

The only silver lining after Simpson’s tragic death was that it accelerated concern over substance abuse by riders.  Eventually, more knowledge of nutrition, hydration techniques and the dangers of many substances helped to ensure that others would not suffer the same fate as Simpson.

The most recent death in the Tour de France is also perhaps the saddest.  Fabio Casartelli of Italy, a former Olympic gold medalist, was descending a dangerous part of the Portet d’Aspet when he crashed, along with several other cyclists.  Unfortunately for Casartelli, his injuries were much more severe than those of the other riders.  Casartelli slid and hit his head on a concrete railing area and didn’t live long enough to reach the hospital.  The next day, the entire group of Tour de France participants dedicated the stage to Casartelli, as Casartelli’s team was allowed to finish first and as a group, with the rest of the field finishing behind, riding slowly.  A fund was also set up to help out Casartelli’s wife and infant son, and riders donated their day’s purses to the fund, with the Tour de France organizers matching the donation.

Like Simpson’s unfortunate death, Casartelli’s led to change within the Tour de France.  Helmet rules were established and consistently made stricter, until recently where it has gotten to the point that riders must wear helmets at all times or be fined.

As you can see, cycling is not a sport for the faint of heart.  Each year, heart stopping crashes occur at speeds of 40 or even 50 miles per hour.  Even with helmets, it’s clear that cycling is a dangerous sport, especially in events like the Tour de France, where steep mountain climbs and descents demand tremendous skill and resilience from the athletes competing.  Even if you’re not a cycling fan, you should definitely respect the great athletes of the sport, who bravely risk their well-being and ride with the determination and passion of champions.

The Yellow Jersey: A Standard of Excellence

When you think of the most iconic trophies in all of sport, you may think of the Stanley Cup, or the World Cup trophy, or the Vince Lombardi trophy.  However, it’s hard to imagine an honor more distinctive than the Tour de France’s yellow jersey.

While not exactly a trophy, the jersey is awarded to the winner of each year’s Tour de France.  What sets it apart from other awards involves two major differences from the rest: that it is worn by competitors, and that it is actually awarded (and re-awarded) during the competition itself, not just at the end of the competition.

One has to wonder exactly how a tradition like the awarding of the famed yellow jersey got started.  If you talked to Philippe Thys, he would have told you that in 1913, Henri Desgrange (the original race organizer) asked him to wear a brightly colored jersey so observers would distinquish him from the field.  Thys was not exactly into the idea of becoming a moving target for other riders, but later conceded.

However, the first official awarding of the yellow jersey wasn’t until six years later, in 1919.  Eugène Christophe, a French rider, was the first to wear it during the course.  Supposedly the distinctive color was either decided upon because of the yellow newsprint of L’Auto, which is the news paper that created and organized the Tour de France, or because yellow was an unpopular color choice for riders and therefore would stand out and be readily available from manufacturers.  It all depends on who you’d rather believe.

Although wearing the yellow jersey today makes one the subject of admiration and praise, Christophe didn’t receive that kind of reaction.  Instead, he claimed that spectators would make canary noises as he rode by, as well as just generally heckling his “choice” of attire.

The yellow jersey has gone on to have a history rivaling that of the Tour de France itself.  One of the more memorable yellow jersey problems has always been when more than one rider ties for the right to wear the jersey.  In years past, it was decided that tie breakers would be utilized to keep from having to have more than one yellow jersey-donning rider at a time.

At times, there have also been a lack of riders wearing the yellow jersey.
Switzerland’s Ferdi Kubler was the first to pass up the chance to wear the yellow jersey, doing so because the previous race leader (Fiorenze Magni) had left the race as a result of alleged threats made to him and his Italian teammates by spectators.

In 1971, the great Eddy Merckx, widely considered as perhaps the best cyclist of all time, started a tradition of sorts by declining to wear the jersey when the previous leader crashed.  Luis Ocaña was in the lead when he crashed on the col de Mente, and Merckx wanted no part of the yellow jersey when he was able to take the lead as a result.

This new tradition was followed by Joop Zoetemelk, who opted out of the yellow jersey in 1980 when Bernard Hinault withdrew from a knee injury, Greg LeMond, who did the same after Denmark’s Rolf Sorenson was eliminated from the race by a crash, and most recently Lance Armstrong in 2005.  Armstrong wouldn’t start with the yellow jersey on because the previous wearer, David Zabriskie, was taken out of the race by a crash.  Armstrong later reconsidered at the urging of Tour de France organizers.

The only rider who refused the yellow jersey based upon its actual composition was Louison Bobet.  Bobet, an eventual multiple time champion of the Tour de France, did not want to wear the yellow jersey because it contained synthetic fabrics.  It seemed that Bobet was a wool man through and through, and he would not budge from his position.  Finally, another jersey had to be rushed out (this one was pure wool) to avoid the lack of a yellow jersey wearer in the next stage.

Although the yellow jersey has evolved into one of the most recognizable honors in all of sport, it had its growing pains, probably more so than any other sports award.  As you can see, the yellow jersey didn’t become a prestigious symbol of accomplishment overnight!

The Tour de France: A Beginner’s Guide

The Tour de France is an incredibly exciting event that is followed by fans all across the world.  However, the Tour de France can also be intimidating to those who aren’t familiar with the sport of cycling, or the race itself.  Let’s go over some of the basics, so that you’ll be able to follow this year’s Tour de France with a better understanding of the events taking place!

First of all, the object of the Tour de France is, of course, to finish the overall race with the fastest time.  What complicates things is that the Tour de France is a race that is divided up over a period of about three weeks.  It’s important to know that the race itself is divided into different parts called stages.  Each stage lasts one day, although the stages can be quite long.  There are a total of 21 stages, and the complete race is usually well over 1,800 miles (or over 3,500 km) long!

Although the object of the Tour de France is to win the overall race as a whole, each stage is treated much like its own individual race.  Winners of stages receive prize money, and winning a stage of the Tour de France is often regarded as a bigger accomplishment than winning other single-day races.  The stages themselves can be flat, mountainous, or anywhere in between, and often there are individual time trials that serve as stages.  Competitors generally get a couple of days to rest during the race, as well.

If you’ve seen footage of the Tour de France before, or heard others talk about it, you probably want to know what the yellow jersey is all about.  The famed yellow jersey is one of four different jerseys that designate that the rider wearing it has achieved a specific feat.  The rider wearing the yellow jersey is the overall leader of the race.  To determine who has earned the yellow jersey at any point in the race, officials merely take the lowest overall combined time from all the stages.

The green jersey is awarded to the points leader in the race.  Points are earned according to passing order at the finish line or in intermediate sprints.  For this reason, riders who specialize in sprints are generally those found wearing the green jersey.

The distinctive polka dot jersey goes to the leader of the “mountain classification”, with points being earned according to passing order on mountain stages.  Therefore, it is often said that the rider wearing the polka dot jersey is the best climber of the race.

Finally, the white jersey is only worn by riders aged 25 years or younger.  This jersey is intended to spotlight the rising stars of the cycling world and the Tour de France.  Many riders who wore the white jersey have also gone on to win the coveted yellow jersey in their careers.

There are other awards given during the Tour de France as well.  The combativity prize is also known as the fighting spirit award and is awarded by a panel of eight cycling specialists.  There is also a team award called the team classification, which is given after adding the times of the top three riders for each team for each stage to get a total time.  Riders in teams often assist each other by “slipstreaming” behind one another for better speed, or using other team tactics.  Teams are grouped by common sponsors.

It also bears mentioning that finishing straight stages in the top three can earn you bonus seconds, which help you shave precious seconds off of your total time.  Also, the final mountain climb of the Tour de France is for double points, which is a great incentive for climbers.  The double points were added to the official race rules starting in 2004.

Now that we’ve addressed the basics of the Tour de France, you’ll be better prepared to enjoy one of the world’s most prestigious and historic sporting events.  Make sure to pay attention to what’s going on during the races, and you’ll find that it’s not nearly as complicated as it may have seemed.  Before you know it, you’ll be cheering your favorite rider on towards the yellow jacket!

The First Tour de France: A Humble Beginning

The Tour de France is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and famous sporting events in history.  For over one hundred years, great athletes have traversed vast roads and steep mountain climbs in France for the title of world’s greatest cyclist.  It’s hard to believe, then, that the historic race began as a publicity stunt for a newspaper!

In 1903, the publishers of the French newspaper L’Auto wanted to outdo the cycling race promoted by a rival newspaper.  The paper’s cycling journalist, Géo Lefèvre, came up with idea to have a race throughout France, separated by stages.  He discussed it with editor Henri Desgrange after lunch, and the idea took off.  In January, the first ever Tour de France was announced.

However, many details had to be ironed out before the race could even begin.  Originally, the race was planned to be an incredible five weeks long.  Unfortunately, that proved to be intimidating to most cyclists, as only just over a dozen were willing to take on a race of that magnitude.  By cutting the length severely to a total of nineteen days, more entrants were enticed to give it a try.  It also didn’t hurt that participants were given a daily allowance for their efforts.  The changes increased the participation in the inaugural Tour de France by four times the original number of riders, to sixty.

The participants themselves were almost exclusively French, with a handful of riders from other countries, mostly Germany, Sweden, or Italy.  The riders included some personalities that captured the imaginations of French cycling fans, such as the 20-year old Lucien Pothier and experienced cyclist Maurice Garin.  Many of the riders, attracted by the promise of the daily allowance, were amateur cyclists, or unemployed and simply looking for something to do with themselves.  Fans also were intrigued by the sheer scope of the race, and the fact that some of the stages were so long that riders had to keep cycling on into the night.

Maurice Garin took an early lead once the race started, taking the first stage during the ride from Paris to Lyon.  He held on to the overall lead, even as Hyppolite Aucouturier won the next two stages.  Despite this spirited challenge, Garin won the last six stages, and the first ever Tour de France.  Garin was actually quite dominant, finishing over two hours ahead of the afore-mentioned youngster, Lucien Pothier.  Fernand Augereau rounded out the top three cyclists in the first race.

There was definitely a disparity in talent in the first race, as the adventurous nature of the race attracted even the most unorthodox of challengers.  In fact, Garin finished over 64 hours ahead of the last place finisher, Arsene Millocheau of France.  Again, this only endeared the Tour de France to those who were already intrigued by the massive race.

The 1903 installment of the Tour de France served its purpose not only by launching the overwhelmingly successful cycling championship that has lasted over one hundred years, but also by giving L’Auto the publicity and sales bump that its editors so badly wanted.  During the race itself, readership of the newspaper almost tripled, as a matter of fact.

The riders themselves would continue on into the next year.  Garin, Pothier, and Aucouturier would compete in the 1904 Tour de France, which was a ragtag affair marred by cheating and occasional riots by fans.  All three would end up being disqualified, which kept Garin from winning his second straight Tour de France.

From such humble beginnings, an annual spectacle known the world over has resulted.  Throughout the last one hundred and five years, heroes as well as villains have emerged to succeed the likes of Garin and Pothier.  Almost as amazing as the athletes that compete in the Tour de France is the fact that the race itself came from such a humble and unassuming beginning, as a race organized to promote a simple French newspaper.