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July 06, 2003

Beginners guide to the Tour de France

There's a 2009 edition of this document available here.

(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, for rider diaries and daily analysis.

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

Posted by Frank Steele on July 6, 2003 in About the Tour | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 18, 2003 1:18:20 AM


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 11, 2003 3:21:15 PM

The pink jersey is the equivalent of the yellow jersey for the Italian national tour, the Giro d'Italia.

Here's Gilberto Simoni in the maglia rosa at the end of this year's Giro.

ONCE usually rides in yellow jerseys, but because of the possible confusion with the leader's maillot jaune, they wear pink versions throughout the Tour (except on the team time trial, where no confusion could occur).

The best young rider (under 25) gets a white jersey -- currently it's Vladimir Karpets of check out the Russian mullet here.

Finally, the best-ranked team gets stuffed lions from sponsoring bank Credit Lyonnais. They used to get caps that I seem to recall being pink.

Posted by: Frank at Jul 11, 2003 3:43:44 PM

I found this entry via Google. Have watched bits and pieces of the Tour before but didn't fully understand what was going on. Very nice intro - would be interested to know your suggestions for further reading on the web - particularly material that doesn't assume too much prior knowledge! Am now listening to Stage 7 as I work here in the UK on a beautiful summer's day.

Posted by: Andrew at Jul 12, 2003 6:30:36 AM

I have never understood several things. People talk about "teams" yet the team does not win, individuals win? Why isn't this considered a individuals sport? Commentators talk about the teams duty to "protect" their leader, protect how and from what? This isn't a full contact sport afterall. Finally, why is it considered bad strategy to just breakaway from the pack and stay there. Why does a team ride together, doesn't that mean that they ride at the pace of the slowest of their group?

Posted by: Joe at Jul 15, 2003 12:29:38 AM

Joe - Good questions.

The teams are very important. Given riders of roughly equal strength working together, the larger group can ride faster than the smaller group because riders can take turns riding in the slipstream, and taking turns at the front taking pulls. So what they're protecting the leader from is the wind.

There are more tangible advantages to riding with teammates -- somebody to fetch bottles from the team car, and someone to hand over their bike if you have a crash or mechanical problems.

US Postal is a pretty perfect illustration of the team's importance: On the uphills, Lance Armstrong will ride in 4th or 5th position, with his teammates doing most of the work. As they get cooked, others take their place, leaving Lance fresh(er) for the mano a mano showdowns as the strongest riders go for the mountaintop. The Sunday stage was a perfect example of this -- Armstrong had an off day, but put time into most of his rivals.

On the flats, the teams work to your advantage by chasing down dangerous breaks, keeping the team leader from having to do it all himself. This week, look for Ullrich, Mayo, Vinokourov, Tyler Freaking Hamilton, and other contenders to be trying to get away on the comparatively flat stages, or to send lower-placed riders who could move up on breakaways, forcing US Postal to chase or risk losing the jersey.

It's bad strategy to just breakaway because it almost never works. It's like the old joke:

When I'm in a bar, I always ask the most beautiful women to sleep with me. Nine times out of ten, I get my face slapped, but the tenth time, it's magic.

Nine times out of ten, the peloton reels those breaks in. But when they succeed, they're magic.

Posted by: Frank at Jul 15, 2003 12:51:37 AM

Great site. I also love le Tour de France. I just wanted to let everyone know that there are places in the U.S. that le Tour is a "big deal". I live in Austin, Texas and every night there are viewing parties at the bars. Plus most of the bars and restaurants carry satelite coverage. The front page of the paper is le Tour coverage and all the radio stations update at the end of a stage. But, I guess this is all because Austin is the home of Lance. Plus, Austin is a big cycling community.
Anyway, great site!!!

Posted by: Karin at Jul 16, 2003 9:25:33 AM

Excellent, excellent intro on TDF. I knew there is this TDF, but never followed it closely. I took part in a local race, which registered me at, which sends regular e-mails about various sporting events. One of those e-mails enlightened me about the TDF schedule. That, combined with one of my colleagues englightning me about the race coverage on OLN, has hooked me into it. Now, I'm getting up early everyday to watch it live.

I did not know much about the basics of the race, what goes on, what are the strategies etc. My colleague helped me a bit, but this is a great intro!!! It should be called "Tour de France for Dummies".

This has helped me a lot to understand various elements of the race.

Posted by: PJ at Jul 16, 2003 8:55:24 PM

Thanks for the answers to my previous questions, it cleared alot of uncertainity! I continue to be amased by the scale of this event. It's a bit mind-boggleing.

Posted by: Joe at Jul 16, 2003 10:27:29 PM

I am as big a Lance Armstrong and USPS fan as anyone could be, getting up at 5:30 a.m. here in Bremerton,Washington, to catch the live coverage and, if Lance does something special in this stage, I'll watch repeat coverage. I even take polaroid photos off the t.v. There are not many really heroic figures in public life or on the field of sport. Lance's personal story and his almost superhuman performances in the last four TDFs do indeed profile the life of a genuine heroic human being. I almost have to laugh when people dare to compare the performance and training regime of an elite cyclist to baseball players (who spend more than 2/3 of a game standing, sitting and waiting), football players who exert for a few seconds per play and platoon in and out of a game, bowlers who can eat a burger, smoke a cigarette, and drink a cocktail while they compete, or a golfer whose greatest exertion is strolling to the next tee (if he's not riding a cart). Even a tennis player's exertion is measured over short, sporadic bursts. Anyway you measure them no other sport compares to the rigor required of even the least talented rider of the epic cycle races. This comment is intended to be a tribute to every rider who attempts to complete any of these great events. Best wishes and good luck to all of you.

Posted by: marcel perez at Jul 17, 2003 4:01:15 AM

Great intro.

May be a quick comment about the role of the coach (technical director) would be nice.

I keep hearing comments such as "Lance's strategy." It is my understanding that most of the planning of the race is done by the technical director.

Posted by: Adolfo at Jul 17, 2003 9:40:08 PM

That's a good point. The US Postal directeur sportif is Johann Bruyneel, a fairly successful racer himself (he won the fastest stage in Tour history before Mario Cippolini). He directs the day-to-day tactics -- go now, save Heras, etc.

On many teams, the DS will also set overall strategy, but on a team with a Tour winner, the rider will play more of a role in the long-term planning.

This is another area where technology has changed the sport. At one point, the DS would fill in the riders with their strategy, and could update them only when the team car came alongside. Now the teams typically use radios to communicate directly to the riders, and can respond much more quickly to changing conditions in the race.

Posted by: Frank Steele at Jul 17, 2003 11:06:45 PM

Excellent primer, thank you! Could you please explain a little more about breakaways and the need to chase them down (in regards to being the overall winner), and sprints at the finish? It seems like a steady pace would be faster, so why not let them go? Also, what does sending out a team member to catch the breakaway accomplish? It doesn't affect the sprinters speed, or does it? Sorry to be so obtuse!

Posted by: Allen at Jul 18, 2003 11:00:48 PM

Sweet article. As a sports bookmaker this was a great intro to something I have never puts odds up on. I will be doing this next year for sure and will try to gain more understanding from sites like this. I wonder if you yourself had a bet this year as it got down to the wire and then Armstrong beat him on the 15th stage

Posted by: dd at Jul 21, 2003 9:23:25 PM

Excellent guide!!! Thanx for making the information available!!!

Questions?: Who designs the Tour stage layout each year? Does the total number of stages vary from year to year? Is there a length for the Tour, in terms of overall distance, that organizers attempt to achieve? How do the organizers decide on the amount of relatively flat stages versus mountain climbs versus time trials in the Tour?

Thanx Again!!! Keep up the superb work!!!

Posted by: AceOSX at Jul 22, 2003 8:35:02 AM

Wonderful tutorial for the perplexed.

I deduce from stage 16 results that all riders in the peleton are assigned the same time, but are listed in the sequence of their finishing positions. True? If a rider breaks from the pack just before the finish, how far ahead must he be to be given his own time ahead of the peleton? And are finishers within but at the front of the peleton awarded time and points bonuses?

Posted by: Conrad at Jul 24, 2003 6:38:16 AM


The Tour layout is designed by Jean-Marie Leblanc, the Tour's director, and others within the Amaury Sport Organization, which owns the Tour.

There are variations from year to year: some years there may be an uphill time trial, for a number of years there was no team time trial, some years it circles France clockwise (as this year: Alps first, then Pyrenees), and some counterclockwise.

The start and finishing points for each stage are also the result of bids by each city, which pays for the privilege of hosting a start, a finish, or both.

Posted by: Frank Steele at Jul 24, 2003 8:35:41 AM


That's exactly right: everyone finishing in a group gets the time of that group, unless a gap of at least a second opens up between.

The order of finish is determined, as you guessed, by first wheel over the line, and the time and sprint bonuses awarded on that basis.

The one gotcha is the last-kilometer crash rule (as we saw in Stage 1), which gives riders who fall in the last kilometer of a stage the same time as the group in which they were riding at the time of the fall.

Posted by: Frank Steele at Jul 24, 2003 8:40:01 AM

I copied below a post from Allen from July 18. When I read his questions I looked forward to the answers as I had the same questions in my mind, but unfortunately I either overlooked the response or there wasn't one. Thanks in advance for your response.

"Excellent primer, thank you! Could you please explain a little more about breakaways and the need to chase them down (in regards to being the overall winner), and sprints at the finish? It seems like a steady pace would be faster, so why not let them go? Also, what does sending out a team member to catch the breakaway accomplish? It doesn't affect the sprinters speed, or does it? Sorry to be so obtuse!"

Posted by: Jim at Jul 24, 2003 4:44:16 PM


Sure -- some of this I discussed in the reply July 15 to Joe. The most important thing to remember about the Tour is that it's a thousand different races, depending on your goals, your placing, and your team.

Some breakaways don't really matter, like the break in Stage 17 today. When it started to threaten riders in the top 10, you saw their teammates come to the front of the peloton and reduce the gap to the breakaway. Another advantage to today's break was that it featured riders from 10 different teams, 10 teams who therefore had no reason to help chase the break down, since their rider in the break had at least a 10 percent chance of winning if the break stayed away.

Other breaks, like the efforts of Alexandre Vinokourov in the Pyrenees, require the attention of the yellow jersey and his team and those of other highly placed riders, because of the threat that such a rider may move up on general classification. If Vinokourov were somehow to get away tomorrow, you might see Ullrich's Bianchi team and Armstrong's US Postal team both work to bring him back, since both would be threatened.

Since Vino is a threat, he's considered a 'marked man', and Armstrong and Ullrich are highly unlikely to let him get away, particularly at this late stage of the Tour.

Sprints at the finish: Almost every team has a sprint specialist who can kick to the line at 45 mph for a few hundred yards. If either no one is able to break away earlier, or the peloton is able to reel in all the breaks, the teams will work to get their sprinters in a good position. Some sprinters have designated lead-out men (Robbie McEwen's favorite was Nick Gates, who has abandoned), whose wheel they'll hold until the last 200 meters or so. Often, the winning sprinter will use another highly rated sprinter (from another team) as his lead-out man, then come by him on the line.

Bridging from the peloton to the breakaway ("sending a team member to catch the breakaway") usually is an effort to join a stage-winning breakaway. Riders can also sometimes disrupt the tempo of a breakaway, by refusing to ride in the lead, and this may be enough to slow the other breakaway riders (who don't want to tow a rider who has been resting at the back of the break to the finish).

It's rare for a marquee sprinter to get into a successful breakaway, and when they do, it's unlikely that the other members of the break will work well with them, since the riders know who the dangerous sprinters are.

Posted by: Frank Steele at Jul 24, 2003 5:27:41 PM

Who are the 6 americans who have won stages in the Tour de France? I know

Posted by: Deedee at Jul 24, 2003 8:16:26 PM