Let’s face it, watching road cycling on T.V. is somewhat of a niche pastime that is predominantly enjoyed by an audience that consists of enthusiastic, passionate cyclists who genuinely feel they share something in common with the heroics often seen in Europe’s biggest road races. It’s not unusual for those that avidly ride and identify with the road cycling culture to find inspiration, beauty, and fandom in watching road cycling on T.V.
For me personally, I’ve always felt that if I wasn’t out riding, the next best thing was to be excavating motivation for the ride by watching those who do it best, with the bonus of admiring the beauty of places that I’ve never been to. What I mean is when you watch road cycling on T.V., it’s as if you’re watching what they call a “moving post card.” One summer, I was guilty of watching all 21 stages of the Tour de France. After its conclusion in Paris, I felt as though I had seen all of France. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched the tour from start to finish, but thanks to a DVR recorder and live web streaming, I still manage to get my fair fix of televised road cycling.
As the Tour de France is by far the most iconic and well-known bike race in the world, it also receives the most media attention and coverage. For this reason, the tour is the most likely cycling event to reach out and grab the attention of cyclists and non-cyclists alike, who may not regularly follow the pro road cycling calendar. Any new viewer will be quick to find out that the tour can be rather difficult to fully understand, as there is a plethora of dynamics that make up the racing. Every July, a new wave of curious viewers may need some basic decoding in order to fully understand everything there is to love about this epic race. Think of this guide as a “how-to” on watching the Tour de France. After all, road racing has been called “chess on wheels.”
A general assumption by those who aren’t familiar with road racing is that the first rider across the line is the winner. While this is true for one day races, this is only partly true in stage races. In case you don’t know what a stage race is, a stage race is a multi-day race that is divided into consecutive days. Each day is treated as a new race (known as a “stage”) with a designated starting line and finishing line, and upon conclusion of each stage every rider’s time is recorded. After the final stage, the rider with the lowest accumulated time through all the stages is the overall winner, also known as “General Classification” or just “GC.”
Most stage races on the pro calendar range between 3 and 8 days, while the Tour de France is a heaping 3 weeks long, with only two rest days, equating to 21 days of brutal racing. Over those three weeks, nearly 2,200 miles are covered by the racers, and to be exact, the 2020 route will cover a total distance of 2,156 miles (3470 km). Keep in mind that these miles are anything but flat.
Flat stages are usually the most predictable, as they entail little to no elevation gain and usually conclude in a “bunch sprint.” A bunch sprint is when the majority of the riders approach the finish line as a large, hard-charging group, in which a rider who specializes in short distance sprints usually takes the cake. These types of riders are known as “sprinters.” Aside from the dangerously-fast finishes, flat stages can become extremely hard and unpredictable when high winds gets involved. Because flat stages often navigate through open farmlands where there’s nothing to shelter the riders from the wind, heavy gusts can cause splits in the peloton (main group of riders) and thus leading to time gaps.
As the name suggests, hilly stages traverse undulating hills. While the stage may not reach high elevations, the repetitive short steep hills can rack up the vertical elevation gain and take its toll on the riders. Depending on how close the final hill is to the finish, these types of stages are often concluded in a “solo victory,” which is when the first rider crosses the finish line seconds or even minutes ahead of the second place rider. It is also not too uncommon for hilly stages to finish in a bunch sprint.
Mountain stages are where the tour is often won or lost. While the profile of a hilly stage features shallower depressions and shorter, more rounded peaks, mountain stages feature a more dramatic zigzag pattern, with taller, steeper peaks. These stages best suit the smaller, lighter riders who’ve mastered the art of riding uphill. These types of riders are known as “climbers.” While some mountain stages might feature a flat finish, many of them feature “summit finishes,” which is when the finish line is literally perched on or near the highest point of a mountain road. Keep in mind that what goes up must come down, which is why the uphill battle is only half the battle. To do well in mountain stages, riders must also have amazing bike handling skills, as descending narrow alpine roads at 60 mph (96.6 kph) (a lot of times in the rain) would tell it.
“The race of truth” as they’re often referred to, individual time trials are when each rider races alone against a running clock. Each rider is given a specific start time in which the clock starts when the rider leaves the start ramp. The rider then rides the time trial course alone, trying to achieve the fastest time possible. The clock stops once the rider has crossed the finish line. The rider with fastest time on the course is deemed the stage winner. Many tours have been won and lost in the ITT. Since there are no other riders to draft off of or teammates to protect, the ITT is where a rider’s true capacity is to be displayed. Time trials are often ridden on specific time trial bikes which are shaped and designed to reduce wind drag for an aerodynamic advantage.
While the General Classification is the most coveted prize, the tour should not be viewed as a single race, but as many races within a race. With riders of all shapes, sizes and talents competing, every rider arrives with a role and a set of goals. Here is what’s up for grabs and who’ll be chasing it:
Often referred to by commentators as the “maillot jaune,” the yellow jersey is the most recognizable and sought-after prize in the tour. It is worn throughout the race by the current leader of the General Classification (GC), meaning a number of different riders will wear the yellow jersey over the course of the race. While wearing the jersey for even one day looks good on any riders resume, the real winner of the jersey is the rider who dawns it on the final podium. It is they who can call themselves “Tour de France winner.
Riders with a keen eye on winning the yellow jersey must be very strong climbers and very strong time trialists, as it is these two disciplines where the most time can be gained or lost. These riders arrive with a team dedicated to helping them win the overall GC. These rider helpers, known as “domestiques” are the workhorses of road racers, performing various roles including anything from fetching water bottles from the team car to pulling their team leader halfway up a mountain. When a rider wins the overall GC, it usually celebrated as a team victory.
The green jersey is often viewed as the sprinter’s jersey. Like the yellow jersey, it is worn throughout the race by the current leader of the points classification. These points are won in two ways. First, they can be won at the finish line, meaning high placed finishers earn points. Secondly they can be earned by winning intermediate sprints which are sprint lines strategically placed throughout a stage (usually in flat stages) in which sprinters treat as a finish line by trying to out sprint others to be the first across the line.
For sprinters, the Yellow Jersey is simply unattainable. This is because sprinters have a sole focus on being the fastest to the line in short bunch sprints. This often requires more muscle mass, and a bike and team dedicated to helping sprinters win flat stages. While true sprinters go into the tour hunting as many stage victories as possible, they also go in with an eye on the green jersey.
Known as the “King of the Mountains,” jersey, the polka dot jersey is worn by the most consistent climber. Like the green jersey, the first riders to reach the summit of a climb first are awarded points. During mountain stages, intermediate King of the Mountains (or KOM) lines are placed at the summit of each climb. Riders trying to win the polka dot jersey try to out climb the others to gain maximum KOM points. The bigger the mountain, the more points are awarded.
It's easy to assume that any talented climber would pursue this jersey. However, that’s not the case. Most of the top climbers pursue the yellow jersey and do not waste their energy chasing the polka dot jersey. This means, the polka dot jersey is usually pursued by riders with no hope of the yellow jersey. These riders often ride in breakaways, meaning they ride way out ahead of the peloton in order to gain an advantage. While riding in a breakaway has proven an effective method, it does require more rider energy.
Known as the “best young rider” category, the white jersey is awarded to the highest placed rider 25 years old or younger in the General Classification. The white jersey is a great way to get a glimpse of the up and coming talent.
Any rider aged 25 years or younger. Any young rider in the tour would be ecstatic to wear this jersey.
At the conclusion of each stage, a Tour de France jury awards a distinct red bib number to the rider who showed the most courage, put in the most attacks, and made the biggest effort. After the final stage of the tour, an overall winner is also chosen by this same jury.
Since this award is somewhat subjective, it is not one which is intentionally pursued. Most of the time, it is unknowingly won by riders who spend a lot of time working in the breakaway in pursuit of a stage victory.
At the conclusion of each stage, the team classification is awarded to the best overall team. This is determined by adding up the times of the top three riders of each team at the end of each stage. The team with its top three riders containing the best cumulative time is awarded a yellow bib number. Like all the other awards, after the final stage of the tour, the best overall team is awarded.
Teams usually don’t head into the tour with the sole goal of winning the team classification and instead win it en route to achieving other goals. However, it’s not unheard of for teams within striking distance, heading into the final stages of the tour, to change their strategy in order to win it.
For many GC riders, achieving a spot on the final podium in Paris would be the highlight of their racing career. While they may not be awarded the hallowed yellow jersey, a spot on the final podium is without a doubt one of the biggest accomplishments in cycling.
Just about all General Classification riders, with the exception of a former winner, as anything less than the yellow jersey might be a disappointment.
As is with any achievement in the Tour de France, a stage win is enough to solidify most pro riders’ career. Many riders come to the tour targeting a single stage which may perfectly match their talents. For sprinters, racking up stage wins is all a part of their game, so much so that multiple stage wins is often seen as a bigger achievement than winning the green jersey.
All riders to start the Tour de France.