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!