It’s the pinnacle of the road cycling season, the three weeks a year where fans of all ilks and experience levels religiously tune in for hours each day. Simply put, the Tour de France is one of the world’s greatest and most iconic sporting spectacles. Long time fans of cycling take for granted how the various races within the race all function, but for a newbie the world’s most beautiful bike race can be baffling.
Just how do those jerseys work? Who is that rider blitzing it in the mountains and why isn’t he winning the race if he’s at the front? Quite simply, what the heck is going on? We put this guide together to help decrypt and decipher the Tour de France – all with a little help from professional road cyclist for Trek-Segafredo and likely Tour de France start, Toms Skuijns.
What is the Tour de France?
Only the biggest race in the cycling calendar – a race born from a newspaper marketing scheme that, thankfully, blew up in a way that nobody – not even the creator himself Henri Desgrange – could have anticipated. From the first winner, Maurice Garin (affectionately named ‘The Little Chimney-sweep’) to the latest winner, Chris Froome (begrudgingly nicknamed, ‘Froomey’), all winners of the prestigious yellow jersey have embodied the very newspaper that they have been advertising – L’Équipe famously printed on yellow paper in the good ol’ days of professional road cycling.
23 days, 21 stages (the riders get two well-deserved days of down time) with more than one winner crowned at the end – the Tour de France is a sporting event like no other. You thought your recent weekend ride was a tough one? Try doing it twice as fast, back to back, in brutal heat and tumultuous rain, day after day for three whole weeks.
Who wears what?
With a speeding peloton already bursting with vibrant colours, it’s often difficult to distinguish who’s who among the bunch of 180+ riders…
Yellow jersey: the leader of the overall classification and ‘big boss’ on the road – attack him if you dare but be prepared to face the repercussions if you do. The wearer is the rider with the fastest cumulative time across all the stages – it can be won at the end of the race without its wearer ever finishing a stage first.
Green jersey: the leader of the points classification. Points are accumulated during each stage finish based on a rider’s finishing position. No, this is not Peter Sagan’s team jersey – he just happens to wear it an awful lot.
Polka-dot jersey: the king of the mountains strip is awarded to the rider who has crested the most, and largest climbs in first place, day after day – it’s also the most glamorous of the lot and very highly regarded among French fans in particular.
White jersey: like the yellow, but for the youngsters – under-25s mainly but the rule can get a little technical depending on where a rider’s birthday falls in the year – certainly one to take up with the UCI.
The key stages
Two, fast sprint stages kick off the 2018 race before a pivotal, 35km team time trial falls on stage 3 – a day that many have highlighted in this year’s roadbook. Skuijns says it’s all to play for.
“It most likely won’t be a real GC contender that takes yellow, but I’d expect them all to be within sight of each other. There will be big gaps for sure – look for Team Sky and BMC to come out on top here.”
The next key stage doesn’t fall until stage 9 – one of the most anticipated of the 2018 edition with the cobbled finale into Roubaix. A highly unpredictable day is sure to result in some surprise results, potentially some ground-breaking ones. Skuijns again highlights this stage as one of his favourites.
“It should be a real spectacle to watch, both for the stage win and the GC battle within. [Alejandro] Valverde is so good, he might just go and win this stage.”
The real fight for yellow will ensue as the riders hit the final week. Moving from the Alpine second week, through the Massif Central and into the infamous Pyrenees – the mountainous battleground that will play host to the final yellow jersey showdown. With the fabled Bagneres de Luchon, Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet making appearances in the final week, the riders are in store for one hell of a tough ride. Skuijns explaining.
“There will be several riders that shout, ‘grupetto!’ as soon as the road tilts up – while the other end of the spectrum, the GC boys, will be launching attacks whenever they can.”
With very few kilometres against the clock and more mountain stages than you can shake a spoke at, this is certain to be an action packed race from start to finish – one for the true mountain goats of the peloton. But who should we look out for on the road to Paris this July?
Ones to watch
Chris Froome is the clear favourite, despite his recent travails in the press you just cannot seem to count out this 6-time Grand Tour champ. His former teammate, Richie Porte, will be channelling his inner Tasmanian Devil and electric form from a recent Tour de Suisse victory to try and usurp the Briton’s crown.
Podium placers from last year’s race, Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet, will be trying their level bests to snatch yellow as the race hits the high mountains. Movistar’s triple threat of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde are Froome’s biggest threat. Who will lead the team come the Tour? Skuijns seems to think even they don’t know yet.
“The biggest reason Movistar are bringing three GC contenders to the race is because of the cobbled stage 9 – one slip and you can find yourself really far back already. I’d say if there was ever a year that Valverde could win, it’s this year. I’ll also be looking at Porte to really prove his three-week ability this year.”
The yellow jersey isn’t the only prize up for grabs this July – a fierce fight is already brewing for the sprinter’s green jersey. Peter Sagan comes to the Tour looking for redemption, Fernando Gaviria a startling debut, Michael Matthews to defend his emerald prize and Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish to nab one more stage for the old-timers. We think it would be fair to say that this year’s edition is stacked with sprinting talent.
“I reckon, with so many flat sprints and few punchy uphill ones, this is the year that Sagan won’t dominate the green jersey competition,” says Skuijns.
Translating the commentators
Newbies to the wonderful, but often weird world of professional cycling may just find themselves a little lost when tuning in for the first time. Here are just a few of the key translations to help you along this July:
Domestique: teammates that leave everything out on the road for their boss. Riding in the wind, counterattacking or simply collecting food and drink from the team car – a domestique is the ultimate team helper.
Peloton: The biggest group of riders – most of the time – but upon entering the mountains the definition gets a lot looser. As a rule of thumb, look for the yellow jersey – unless they’re off the front alone, or slipping behind – wherever the maillot jaune is, that’s the peloton.
Breakaway: The peloton’s incentive to race, a breakaway is a small group of riders trying to outride the larger bunch behind. They nearly never win, but when they do it’s magical.
Grupetto: The slow-coaches, or rather those riders who can’t keep up with the springy climbers on the toughest of mountain stages. The grupetto is an odd mix of sprinters, knackered GC contenders and those looking to milk the most from the roadside spectators – a beer or two impossible to turn down on the longer stages.
On-the-rivet: Age-old term from the days when saddles were constructed using large, brass rivets. On-the-rivet refers to a rider sitting right on the tip of his saddle, going hell for leather on the attack, or driving the head of the peloton. Also ‘á bloc’ and ‘grinding into it’.
Panache: An act of pure brilliance that more than warrants a swift doff of one’s cap.
Sticky bottle: A rather blatant way of gaining ‘assistance’, a rider will hold onto a bottle (or another miscellaneous item) handed out by their team car and receive one hefty, motorised boost.
What sets this race apart?
The Giro d’Italia has its high mountains, the Vuelta a España its agonising gradients and the Classics their unpredictable racing and gruesome pavé – but none quite have the allure, prestige and notoriety of the Tour de France. The only race your non-cycling friends have ever heard of – this is the three weeks of the year where you can celebrate everything ‘bike’ without being scorned by your nearest and dearest as you don your favourite lycra and tune into the ITV4 live coverage for hours on end.
Not only is this a unique race for fans, the Tour de France shares a similar, unique sentiment with the pros that ride it. Skuins summarises this great race in one final, apt quote from years of insight into the pro peloton.
“If there is one race that the average Joe knows, it’s the Tour de France. As a professional, until you can reply, “yes I have” to their question, “oh, so have you ridden the Tour de France?”, you can never really feel like a proper professional cyclist.”
Follow Toms Skuijns on his quest to answer this ever-burning question as he prepares to make the team that may take him to his first, ever Tour de France.