Understanding the Tour de France

The overall leader is in yellow, the sprint points leader in green and the king of the mountain leader has the red polka dots

Tour de France Television Coverage

This article is intended to give the novice viewer enough information to understand what is going on in the Tour de France. Each year NBC Sports presents fantastic live coverage each morning, with commentary by Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen. They race in the afternoon in France, which is six hours ahead Eastern Time in the United States. For those unfortunate people who have to work during the day, they have a three hour show in the evening which shows the day's highlights. Bob Roll is usually one of the evening commentators.

Tour de France Terms

Let's start off with a few terms that might be new to you. The biggest group of riders is called the peloton, which means "little ball" in French. Sometimes a rider or group of riders will race ahead of the peloton. This is called a breakaway. Usually the peloton will eventually catch up with a breakaway, but not always.  If another group gets ahead of the peloton but still trails the leaders, they will be referred to as a chase group. On some stages, usually the hilly ones, the race can break up into many small groups. On the broad cast they will number the chase groups as chase 1, chase 2, etc. They will refer to riders who drop behind the peloton as "off the back." These can be riders who are struggling physically, sprinters on a hilly stage, or riders who drop back to a support car for medical attention before racing back to re-join the peloton.

Races Within a Race

Yellow Jersey

The Tour de France includes 21 days of riding over 23 days (three full weeks and a fourth weekend). Some times they start with a prologue, which is a very short time trial. The rest of the riding days are referred to as stages. The big names, like Chris Froome or Vincenzo Nibali (often referred to as the "Heads of state" by Phil Liggett are looking to win the overall classification, which means they want to have the least total time for all stages. The overall leader wears the yellow jersey. These guys aren't concerned about winning stages, although they will gladly take one if they can without tiring themselves out too much for the following stages. Most of the riders in the Tour de France know they have no chance to win the overall classification, so if they can take a stage win, that's the equivalent of winning the lottery for them. It also makes the team sponsors very happy.

Green Jersey

The sprinters, the guys who can win a mass sprint on relatively flat terrain, compete for the green jersey. At the finish on the flat stages and at some intermediate points, there are points available. The winner of the green jersey is whoever accumulates the most points. On each stage, all riders must finish within a specified time or they are disqualified. On mountain stages, the sprinters often congregate in a group behind the peloton called the "autobus." These guys are not racing each other. All they care about is getting across the finish line before the time limit.

King of the Mountain Jersey

The climbers compete for the "King of the mountain" jersey, which is white with red polka dots. Points are available for cresting mountains in the first few positions. The number of points available depends on the classification of the climbs. There are five categories of climbs (listed in order of increasing difficulty):
  • 4C
  • 3C
  • 2C
  • 1C
  • HC
The easiest category is 4C, which has only 1 point available for the first rider across the line. HC is the hardest. Climbs are rated based on grade, length, and how late in the race they occur. When the last climb of the day is a 2C, 1C or HC, the points are doubled.

Tour de France Strategy

When riders finish in a big pack, all riders get the same time. Therefore on a flat stage, you will typically see the sprinters going for the win, and those competing in the general classification just trying to stay out of any crashes. Flat stages rarely have an impact on the overall standings. What does have an impact are:
  • Mountain stages
  • Individual time trial stages
  • Team time trial stages

 For 2015 there will be a short time trial (Stage 1), and a team time trial on Stage 9. They don't have a team time trial every year, but it's on the schedule for 2015. In the team trial, each member of a team will take a turn at the front, where they have to do the most work, then rest up while they draft on the others. When climbing mountains, riders are going slower, so drafting off someone doesn't save you that much energy. The top riders can get time on their rivals during these stages, especially, when the stage ends with a climb. If there is a big climb in the middle of a stage, the peloton will typically split apart during the climb, but the top riders generally comes back together before the end of the stage. Obviously, if the stage ends with a climb, there is no opportunity for this to happen.

If you go to the official Tour de France website,  you can click on "Route" then click on any of the individual stages. You can then click on "Stage Profile" to see how much climbing the riders will have to do that day. For 2015, the critical mountain stages look to be:

  • 10: Finishes with an HC climb on Col de Soudet
  • 12: Ends with an HC climb to Plateau de Beille
  • 19 The final climb is a 1C to La Toussuire
  • 20 Finishes with the legendary 22 switchbacks going up Alp D'Huez, another HC climb. Don't Miss This One!

Of course, things don't always go as expected. This is especially true if the riders encounter a strong crosswind. Normally, a rider drafting off another cyclist will ride directly behind him. In this case, the peloton forms a long pack that stretches back down the road. When there is a crosswind, the ideal drafting position is to the side away from the wind and slightly behind the rider in front. In this case, the peloton would soon run out of room because of the limited width of the road. If they encounter a strong crosswind (more likely on stages near the ocean), the peloton may split apart, even if the stage is realtively flat.

In the Tour de France, all the riders know each others strengths and weaknesses. The contenders for the yellow jersey will not be concerned if some sprinters gain a few minutes on them in the early stages. They know they can easily make up time on them in the mountains. If one of the top riders thinks he can beat his rivals up stage 20 to Alp D'Huez, he just has to stay even with them going into stage 20. On the other hand, if he expects to lose some time to rivals on that stage, he better have a lead going into that stage.

The 2014 Tour de France

The 2014 TDF was a disappointment to cycling fans because two of the top three contenders, crashed out in the early stages. Both Chris Froome (2013 winner) and Alberto Contador (2007 & 2009 winner) were injured in crashes and had to abandon the race. The remaining rider of the top three, Vincenzo Nibali, put in a masterful performance and won by almost eight minutes. It is a shame that cycling fans did not get a chance to see him compete against Froome & Contador. After his impressive 2013 victory, I thought Froome would be unbeatable in 2014. After watching Nibali, I'm not too sure Froome could have beaten him even if had not crashed.

The 2015 Tour de France

The 2015 Tour de France looks like it should be a good one. The three contenders from last year should be there, along with Nairo Quintana from Colombia. Quintana is an outstanding climber and finished second to Froome in the 2013 TDF. I'm hoping for an exciting, 4-way battle up the slopes of Alp D'Huez on the next to the last day of the Tour. By tradition, those competing for the overall title do not race each other on the final day. The last stage is strictly for the sprinters.