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July 07, 2003

The Drive for Five: A Beginner's guide to the Tour de France

(This is an updated version of a post originally written in July 2002.)

My favorite sporting event began Saturday. It's one that doesn't get much attention in the United States, but the recent World Cup coverage leaves me optimistic that one day, that could change.

If you're not interested in bicycle racing, at least give me a chance to explain why I find it so interesting.

The most overused metaphor in sport is that "Sport X is like life." Tennis is not like life. Golf is certainly not like life. Life is a campaign, a day-in, day-out fight against constant adversity; a little like a full baseball season. Even more, I would argue, like a bicycle stage race. Here, you have water carriers (literally) and stars, teamwork and individual efforts, constantly shifting conditions and strategies, and a race so hard that no one ever chalks the win up to luck.

A stage race is a series of road races, typically around 100 miles each, and time trials that typically run about 30 miles. The stage winner is the first person to cross the finish line that day or the time trial rider with the lowest time. All riders compete for the overall race title, awarded to the rider with the lowest time over all the stages. This means the overall winner doesn't have to win a single stage -- they just need to stay close to the leaders.

There are 22 teams in this year's Tour, and each starts out with 9 riders. Some team members are sprinters, some are climbers, some are domestiques, literally servants, who are expected to fetch water from the team car and to protect the team leader by chasing down breakaways and riding at the front of the team, providing a draft in which the team leader can ride.

The race route for the Tour de France always starts out fairly easy, with a week or more of flat stages. These stages are typically won in a field sprint, where 20-30 riders who specialize in closing out races with a powerful kick (at nearly 40 mph) come off the front of the peloton (the main group of riders) in the last kilometer of the stage. Occasionally, a rider wins one of these stages in a breakaway, by jumping away from the pack with miles to ride, and staying away to the end.

The sprinters not only compete for stage wins, but for sprint points at intermediate sprints. The first few riders to reach the sprint line are awarded sprint points. The rider with the most sprint points is awarded a green jersey to wear during the subsequent stage, so other riders, fans, and TV cameras can easily follow the sprint leader's moves. Last year, Germany's Robbie McEwen of Australia won the overal sprint jersey, and Germany's Erik Zabel, riding in this year's tour, has won 6. Similarly, the rider with the lowest overall time at the end of each stage is awarded a yellow jersey, or maillot jaune. Lance Armstrong won the overall yellow jersey in 2002, and is heavily favored to win his 5th consecutive yellow jersey this year.

After the first 8 stages of this year's Tour, the race moves into the mountains. Some of the sprinters, maybe even some of the early overall leaders, will drop out because they can't hang in the mountains. Frequently, riders who have been involved in all the action so far will lose time by the bundle, and fall off the leader board. Now, the action moves to the climbers. Gilberto Simoni of the Saeco team has promised to make things difficult for Armstrong in the mountains, and he may find help among other Italian teams.

The climbers also have a race-within-a-race, for the polka-dotted climber's jersey. Each climb is categorized, from Category 4 (the easiest) to hors categorie, or beyond categorization, the hardest. The first few riders over the top of each climb are awarded climber's points.

There's one other type of race included in the Tour: the time trial. Riders take off at intervals (usually 2 minutes) from lowest to highest placed, and ride as fast as they can solo to the finish line. This year, the tour also features a team time trial (TTT) where the entire team (of 9 riders) sets out as a group, and all riders on the team are awarded the time of the 5th rider to cross the line.

Although the overall winner is an individual, by tradition, the winner's prize money is split evenly among the entire team.

One of the things that makes the race so interesting is that different riders, and different teams, have different objectives. Lance Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team will focus on the overall win. That means some of his teammates, who could compete for stage wins or specialist jerseys, will instead sit back and ride to protect Armstrong.

The yellow jersey's team is expected to lead the defense of the status quo, chasing down breaks and setting the stage's pace. This is a lot of work for the leader's team, and so letting another team take the lead might make sense.

A team without a legitimate overall contender will instead focus on trying to win a stage or stages, by sending a rider on a solo breakaway, by loading a group breakaway with a disproportionate number of riders from their team, or by providing a good leadout for the team's sprint specialist in a sprint finish.

Sometimes, teams who don't think they will have a chance at even a stage win will send riders on a suicide break -- one that can't possibly stay away -- just for the press coverage they'll get from that rider being on TV.

The differing priorities can lead to interesting on-the-road alliances, where a very strong climber may break away in the mountains with a rider who needs to make up time to try to get on the podium. Such a team might force the leader's team to expend a great deal of energy chasing the break down, opening the door for the 2nd-place rider's team to win their leading rider some time the following day.

Lance Armstrong is the presumed winner this year. He's won the last 4 Tours, and has a very strong team. Everyone knows about Armstrong's fight with cancer, and his tremendous comeback, but there's a technical reason he's been a more competitive rider, as well. In the mid-90s, Armstrong would tend to push a high gear at a low pedaling cadence, which is typical of time trialists or triathletes (Armstrong was a junior national champion in tri). Since his recovery, Lance turns lower gears at an unusually high cadence. Watch him in the mountains to see what I mean.

The United States has really come a long way as an international cycling country. In the days of Greg Lemond, the US would typically have 3-5 riders in the Tour, with Lemond, Andy Hampsten, and a few support riders like Bob Roll, Davis Phinney, or Roy Knickman. This year, there are 6 Americans in the race, 3 of whom are team leaders (Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer).

Despite the tremendous strides of the US, the brightest new country for international cycling is Australia. Seven Aussies started the race, and 2 of the 3 stages so far have gone to the Aussies.

The race is so hard that it's rare to have someone come out of nowhere to win. Last year's highest placed riders who return are Joseba Beloki and Santiago Botero, and former winner Jan Ullrich, who has never finished lower than 2nd, is back and looks to be in great shape with something to prove.

If you have Outdoor Life Network, you can watch 2 hours of live coverage daily.

If you don't, you can follow a lot of the action on the web. The official Tour site does a good job tracking the day's action, and Eurosport has live streaming audio coverage each day. For general coverage, check out VeloNews, the leading American bike racing magazine, or CyclingNews.com, for rider diaries and daily analysis.

And I'll be posting as time permits on anything that catches my eye....

All Tour posts -- newest at the top

July 7, 2003 in Tour de France | Permalink


well, at our WEBlock you'll might find an useful tool if you like to watch the Tour de France. We've build a sidebar for Internet Explorer (5+) that features minute by minute commentary and live streaming video of the TdF.


Our weblog is in Dutch, but the sidebar is in English, so I'll explain to you how to get it to work. To get the sidebar, you have to put the following code in a bookmark. And then click it. That's it! Enjoy.


Posted by: TbosS at Jul 8, 2003 12:08:43 PM

Very nice writeup, by the way. I think I read it last year, but it's good that you keep it updated.

But what about the pink jersey? Best rookie, was it?

Posted by: john m at Jul 10, 2003 5:25:26 PM

I went to eurosport.com and was unable to listen to the live audio.

I have a mac with windows media player and I'm able to watch the pre-recorded videos, but not the live audio.

Does anyone know what I need to do to hear the the live stream?


Posted by: philip at Jul 4, 2005 7:57:48 PM