All July, worldwide attention turns to the most famous and exciting bicycle race on the planet, the Tour de France. This year's contest, edition 102, starts with 198 best-of-the-best professionals storming the asphalt of the opening time trial—the Grand Départ—in Utrecht, Netherlands, 150 miles from the French border.
From the Netherlands, they'll thunder over the cobbles of Belgium and finally enter into France on Stage 4. To survive to the finish in Paris three weeks after they start (above photo), the men will need extraordinary determination, perseverance and luck.
Years of preparation, discipline and experience—plus world-class talent—are required simply to get on a team's Tour roster. When the starter's gun sounds on July 4, everyone in the bunch will face the toughest test of their career! When the Maillot Jaune is on the line, every pedal stroke counts.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali will be back, ready to repeat. But he will have to fend off the likes of 2013 Tour winner Chris Froome, 2014 Giro d'Italia winner and 2013 Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana, and 2015 Giro d'Italia winner Alberto Contador, who seems poised to become the first since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year.
A total of 21 stages—covering 2,088 miles—await: 9 are flat, 3 are hilly, 7 are mountainous (with 5 of those having massive summit finishes!), 1 is an individual time trial against the clock, and 1 is a team time trial. There are also 2 extra rest days. This means the eventual winner will have to possess an unrivaled combination of TT power, climbing nous, tactical know-how and the ability and drive to steal seconds on seemingly benign transition stages.
To learn more about the overall contenders, this year's most important stages, fun Tour terms and more, we've prepared this handy guide. It will help you fully appreciate and enjoy the world's most spectacular sporting event.
|Stage 1 | Saturday, July 4 | Utrecht (Netherlands) | Individual Time Trial: 13.8km/ 8.6 miles. After losing the World Time Trial Championships in September by 26 seconds, Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) has announced he is targeting the stage 1 TT victory and at least one day in the Yellow Jersey. The course is short and flat as a crêpe, which suits the three-time World Champion perfectly. Expect the energy of the home crowd and the possibility of the Maillot Jaune to launch Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) to a podium placing or perhaps the victory if Martin suffers even the slightest hiccup.|
|Stage 3 | Monday, July 6 | Antwerp to Huy (Belgium) | Road Race: 159.5km / 99 miles. After a couple of flat days in the Netherlands, the peloton heads to Belgium where four categorized climbs await. Though this is a Grand Tour, today's stage is an homage to a spring Classic: La Flèche Wallonne, a race won this year by Alejandro Valverde that finishes on the punishingly steep Mur de Huy. Interestingly, Valverde will be co-captaining his Movistar team with Nairo Quintana, but if the Spaniard wins atop the Mur like he did in April, it could mean infighting within the squad, a la Chris Froome and Brad Wiggins in 2013. Valverde's won the Flèche Wallonne three times, so he knows how to time his sprint on the 19% kicks of the Mur de Huy.|
|Stage 4 | Tuesday, July 7 | Seraing (Belgium) to Cambrai | Cobbled Road Race: 221.5km/ 138 miles. The race finally enters France in what is the longest stage of the Tour. Similar to the day before, this one will also play out like a spring Classic: this time it's Paris-Roubaix, famous for its cobbled roads. In 2014, eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali displayed the poise and determination of a champion by finishing 3rd on a similarly cobbled stage 5 in rainy conditions, solidifying his lead on the Yellow Jersey. This year, seven pavé sections may prove just as critical. It's not easy riding over jarring, century-old bricks. Add in a sprinkle of precipitation, and it could be even more dangerous. No one will win the Tour today, but carelessness or a simple moment's inattention could certainly end it for some. Just ask Chris Froome, who in 2014 crashed twice on stage 5 and abandoned the race.|
|Stage 8 | Saturday, July 11 | Rennes to Mûr-de-Bretagne | Road Race: 181.5km / 113 miles. With a course profile reminiscent of stage 3, this is another day where a few seconds of time gaps may start to open up among the overall contenders. If Valverde is on form, this looks like another day tailor-made for him. But Philippe Gilbert, hot off two stage victories in the Giro d'Italia, will argue that point. The finish climb up the Mûr de Bretagne is 1.2 miles long; the first half-mile averages 10%, but it eases to just 2% at the top. Riders first need the strength to get up the sharp incline, and then the sprinting pop to jump anyone who may still be in the lead group.|
|Stage 9 | Sunday, July 12 | Vannes to Plumelec | Team Time Trial: 28km / 17.4 miles. Team time trials are always a joy to watch. Each team is a 9-rider snake, riding on its own against the clock, aerodynamic bikes and bodies mere inches away from one another to maximize the benefits of drafting. While most TTTs are straightforward affairs with no real "tactics" to speak of, this one has enough lumps in the profile to make things fun. There's even a 1-mile, 6% climb to the finish! The clock stops when the 5th man crosses the line, so we just might see the time trial specialists pull extra hard to the base of the climb, and then drop off the pace and let the GC riders and climbers get to the finish. Each team will have to decide for itself the fastest way to deliver their team leader to the line.|
|Stage 10 | Tuesday, July 14 | Tarbes to La Pierre Saint-Martin | Road Race: 167km / 104 miles. No matter what the course offers, Bastille Day always means a great stage. Frenzied French fans will line nearly all 104 miles, and the steep, HC (hors categorie) finishing climb past the Col de Soudet will be the first mountain test for those who hope to ride into Paris in Yellow. Any early breakaway attempts may seem destined to succeed, but the gap they carry into the climb will be wiped out in a hurry, as Team Sky, Astana, and Movistar will all keep the pace brutally hard back in the peloton. Contador is the type of rider who doesn't want to wait until the 3rd week to start racing; expect to see him put in several attacks. Whether they stick is another story.|
|Stage 11 | Wednesday, July 15 | Pau to Cauterets | Road Race: 188km / 117 miles. The mountain goats have been waiting for this day. After three smaller hills in the first 46 miles, things pick up at mile 65, where the peloton hits the category 1 Col d'Aspin. After dropping down the other side, they immediately head up the massive HC Col du Tourmalet. Nineteen miles of descent later, and just one climb remains: the cat 3 finish up the Cote de Cauterets. Lots of uphill and lots of downhill could spell doom for those having a bad day. There's a high likelihood that a diminutive Spanish or South American climber whose name isn't well known will strike out on the Tourmalet to put that name in the history books.|
|Stage 12 | Thursday, July 16 | Lannemazen to Plateau de Beille | Road Race: 195km / 121 miles. Ouch. With yesterday's climbs fresh in their heads, and visions of 10 more stages haunting their dreams, the bunch is forced to take on four progressively difficult and steep mountains. First is the Col de Portet-d'Aspet, followed immediately by the Col de la Core, then the Port de Lers, and finally the hors categorie Plateau de Beille to finish it off. Up until today, a lucky rider with a bit of skill could have managed to park himself in the top 10 on the overall classification. But after today, there are no flukes. Only the strong will remain.|
|Stage 17 | Wednesday, July 22 | Digne-les-Bains to Pra Loup | Road Race: 161km / 100 miles. After a rest day, the climbers resume their adventures in the Alps; so, too, do the sprinters, though their goal of merely fending off the time cut is a bit more modest. After the Col de Lèques and Col de Toutes Aures—two quick warmup climbs that a recreational cyclist would consider a solid day in the saddle—the ascending begins in earnest. They'll head up the Col de la Colle-Saint-Michel, then drop for a bit before the long slog up the Col d'Allos, the tricky descent down the back side, and the summit finish up to Pra Loup.|
|Stage 18 | Thursday, July 23 | Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne | Road Race: 186.5km / 116 miles. The sprinters will be overjoyed to know the final 3 miles are flat as a top tube. There's only one problem. The first 113 miles are either straight up or down, with an astounding 7 categorized climbs and the descents that accompany them. Though the lumps in the first half of the race will take their toll, it's the hors categorie Col du Glandon that will provide the biggest shake-up. More like three smaller climbs combined into one, the 6,300-foot elevation Glandon is likely to see a small group—possibly a breakaway just ahead of the main GC contenders—crest with a lead. But the race isn't to the top, because a skilled descender could bring back the climbers on the wide-open descent. After going downhill for so long, the category 2 Lacets de Montvernier climb could be the straw that breaks one or more camels' backs. Those who manage to get over it in the lead must then outsprint—or outwit—their opponents for the stage win.|
|Stage 19 | Friday, July 24 | Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to La Toussuire | Road Race: 138km / 86 miles. Some stages give the racers time to warm up. Not this one. after a neutral rollout through town, the group will immediately begin the cat 1 Col du Chaussy climb. After dropping back down into La Chambre, they parallel the highway for 8 miles, cross over it, and double back toward the imposing HC Col de la Croix de Fer. A quick twisty drop down and they hit up a lesser climb, the cat 2 Col du Mollard. In the winter, those heading up the climb to La Toussuire are intent on skiing. Today, those at the front of the race will be thinking of attacking and gaining time on their rivals, while the sprinters in the "autobus" are counting down the miles until the relentless climbing is over. If Froome, Contador, Nibali, and Quintana are still racing, expect a great showdown on the slopes.|
Stage 20 | Saturday, July 25 | Modane to Alpe d'Huez | Road Race: 110.5km / 69 miles. Apart from the two time trials, this is the shortest stage of the race. What it lacks in miles, however, will be more than made up for in speed. With only one more ceremonial stage into Paris the next day, everyone will be trying their hardest to leapfrog riders above them on GC but play it conservatively enough that no one below them has a chance to steal their spot. The Souvenir Henri Desgrange, named in honor of the first organizer of the Tour de France, will be given to the rider over the highest mountain summit. This year, that's the hors categorie Col du Galibier, a climb that joins with the Col du Télégraphe to form one massive ascent. The final climb, and the last chance for racing, comes with the summit finish up the 21 switchbacks of the mythic Alpe d'Huez. Given how close the GC men have been to one another lately, after 20 days and thousands of miles across France, the podium order in Paris may come down to just seconds.
|Vincenzo Nibali (Astana): Nibali's Grand Tour record is absolutely incredible. Since 2010, the defending Tour champion has raced 8 of them, finishing on the podium in all but one. He targeted the Tour last year and won it. The year before, he targeted the Giro d'Italia and won it. He also won the 2010 Vuelta a España, making him one of six riders in the history of the sport with a victory in each. An excellent bike handler, the "Shark of Messina" very rarely crashes out of races, a trait that helped propel him to the Tour de France win last year. If Contador, Froome, and Quintana are still in the race come week 3, will Nibali still be able to repeat? He knows both he and his strong Astana team have the horsepower to do so.|
|Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo): Fresh off a Giro d'Italia victory, Contador is aiming for the Giro-Tour double, a feat unseen since 1998. He is undoubtedly the greatest stage racer of his generation, winning 9 Grand Tours (two of those were later voided) out of his last 12 attempts and also taking 6 other major stage race victories. The big question mark is his team. During his Giro run this year, Tinkoff-Saxo looked worn. They did a lot of work at the head of the race, and weren't always present as a buffer for Contador in the high mountains. The Giro's not the Tour, and if Contador is completely isolated, others will sense weakness and attack accordingly. His Tour dreams ended last year when he broke his tibia in a crash on stage 10. Barring catastrophe, Contador will be on the podium again in 2015; but which step?
|Chris Froome (Sky): Leading into June's Critérium du Dauphiné, Froome only raced 3 short stage races and one semi-classic, instead opting to spend most of his early season altitude training on Tenerife. His 2013 Tour de France win was an absolutely commanding performance and put him on everyone's radar. His time trialing is unparalleled, and he goes uphill better than almost anyone. His Sky team is dialed, and will surely be a boon to the Kenyan-born, South African-raised Briton. Like Contador, he crashed out of last year's Tour, so any dicey finishes or gnarly descents might cause the Froome fanclub to hold their collective breaths. Also much like Contador, Froome should end up on the podium. The final stage up the Alpe d'Huez just may decide which step he's on.|
|Nairo Quintana (Movistar): In 2013, the then-23-year-old Quintana took 2nd in the Tour de France. Last year, he followed it up by winning the Maglia Rosa in the Giro d'Italia. This year, his sights are again set on the Tour, and the 5-foot, 6-inch climbing specialist is surely already dreaming about the massive ascents in the third week. It's no secret that his time-trialing skills need improvement, but with just two short TTs this year—and one of them lets Quintana utilize his strong Movistar team—he shouldn't suffer too much against the clock. Where he really shines is when the road goes up. He's already shown he's on form taking a stage win and the overall in Tirreno-Adriatico against many of the world's best. Ultimately, Quintana will need to minimize his losses on his bad days, and maximize the summit finishes to his best advantage if he wants to become the first Colombian to win the Tour.|
|Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp): "The Pitbull" has a never-say-die attitude, which was evident on stage 11 of the 2014 Tour. After suffering crashes in back-to-back stages, the New York native rode alone, off the back, for the final 56 miles of the stage, fighting through pain and tears to finish over 30 minutes down on the winner. He would abandon the Tour overnight. That's determination. During the stage 1 time trial, he will be wearing the Stars and Stripes jersey after winning the US National TT Championship. Will it provide him some extra motivation to set him up for a solid three weeks in France? He's already proven he can win stage races (2014 Critérium du Dauphiné) and finish in the top 10 of Grand Tours (2012 Vuelta, 2013 Tour); but can he put it all together and finally snag the Tour podium he's longed for?|
|Tejay Van Garderen (BMC): van Garderen's Tour results read like the elevation profile of a third-week, high-mountain stage. His first attempt, in 2011, he finished 82nd. The next year, while technically riding in support of his team leader Cadel Evans, he finished 5th. Cue the "America's next Tour winner" stories. In 2013, he followed it up with a mediocre 45th. Last year, he fought his way to another 5th place. If the pattern continues this year, we can expect van Garderen to fizzle out, have a few bad days late, and change his goals from Yellow Jersey to stage wins. But if stage 4 of this year's Volta a Catalunya is any indication, this may be a new-look Tejay. He outclimbed the likes of Richie Porte, Contador, Valverde and others en route to a stage victory. Clearly van Garderen is a formidable bike rider; but will we see him on form, or will he fail to meet the media's and his own expectations?|
|Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): "The Green Bullet" is a born winner. Already this year, he's won Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Flèche Wallonne, and three stages of the Volta a Catalunya. He won the 2009 Vuelta a España, and has finished on its podium on five other occasions. In the Tour, however, the podium has proven elusive. He finished 5th in 2007 and 4th last year, but has never cracked the top 3. With Quintana sharing the co-captain role, Movistar could be the team to unseat the likes of Froome, Contador, and Nibali. At 35, Valverde knows he has just one or two more chances to conquer the Tour. Whether the troops rally around him or Quintana will likely be decided on the road, and the first week's Classics-like finishes suit Valverde well. If he's at all on form, he's almost guaranteed to at least win a stage. Whether he will do more than that will be seen in the first couple weeks of July.|
|Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): He won the Amstel Gold Race and took 2nd at Paris-Nice, so the reigning World Champion's still got it this year. But does the crafty 25-year old Pole have enough experience to ride high up in the general classification? He finished 11th in his 2013 Tour debut, but last year he came with a team mostly supporting sprinter Mark Cavendish. We're likely to see him take one of two tacks: either he plays the three weeks conservatively and quietly rides into a top 10 position in Paris, or—knowing his team isn't all-in for him—he goes hunting for stage wins and doesn't concern himself with his GC hopes. It's always something special to ride into Paris with the World Championship stripes on your sleeve, and Kwiatkowski will likely animate the race. On the punchier finishes of the first week, expect to see him battling alongside Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez for stage wins.
|Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale): At an age when most racers are thinking retirement, Péraud went and got the most impressive result of his career: 2nd in last year's Tour de France. The 38-year-old from Toulouse, France, would love to improve on last year's placing. For that to happen, though, a lot will have to go right for the man who won an Olympic silver medal in the 2008 cross-country mountain bike race and didn't start racing as a pro roadie until 2010. He can hang in the time trials, but will have a hard time chasing Froome and Quintana up the mountains. There's also the question of his Ag2r-La Mondiale team. Will they have the strength and stamina to combat the likes of Team Sky, Astana, and Movistar? They could easily lose a minute on the stage 9 team time trial. And for a rider who was over 7 minutes off the pace of the Maillot Jaune last year, every minute counts.|
|Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha): Rodriguez, like his countryman Valverde, is one of the best racers of the last 10 years. He's also a classics specialist who more than dabbles in Grand Tour placings. In 2012 and 2013, he won consecutive World Tour titles, a feat that requires incredible depth and consistency over the entire year of racing. His best Grand Tour finish is 2nd in the 2012 Giro, and he's been on the podium at all three. In his last 14 attempts at a three-week race, he's finished on the podium in 10, a truly astounding statistic. He's also the type of punchy finisher who doesn't sneak his way onto the leaderboard, but boldly announces his appearances with stage wins and gutsy attacks. This year, he won two stages and the overall at the Tour of the Basque Country. His Katusha squad is always strong and always active, but the diminutive Spaniard has never been able to put all the pieces together. He's 36, so it's beginning to look like now or never. Will "Purito" finally notch the win that's escaped him all these years?|
Other riders to watch: All French spectators will be hoping for at least a repeat of last year, when two Frenchmen reached the podium. Last year's Best Young Rider Thibaut Pinot has a solid chance of riding his way into another top 10, but another third place—or better—is a tough ask. He's withdrawn from two of the five Grand Tours he's attempted, so it's not even a foregone conclusion he'll reach the Champs Elysees. But when he does finish a Grand Tour, he's always been in the top 10. Despite the mounting pressure from the Tour-hungry French fans, and regardless of how this year's Tour goes, the 25-year-old still has plenty of years to learn.
Adam Hansen: not quite a household name. He might not even crack the top 100, but this Australian just finished a record 11th consecutive Grand Tour in May's Giro d'Italia, and will be starting his 12th straight come July. Think about that for a minute. Since the 2011 Vuelta a España, during the months of May, July, and September, he's raced 23,363 miles over 231 of the most grueling stages in pro cycling. He's been able to avoid or ride through the effects of any crashes, stomach bugs, or plain old fatigue that's gotten in his way. And he isn't just spectating from the saddle during this Cal Ripken-esque run, he's racing—earning a stage win in the Giro in 2013 and one in the Vuelta last year. Can he notch a victory in the Tour this time? Does it really even matter? There's toughness, and then there's Adam Hansen.
The sprinters: This year's Tour will also feature plenty of opportunities for the sprinters to shine. After an incredible four stage victories in 2013 and 2014, all eyes will be on Marcel Kittel if he's anywhere near the leaders at the finish line. He won the final stage in Paris both years, proving nearly unstoppable in the bunch gallops to the line. While he likely won't be able to don the Yellow Jersey for a day as he did last year, Kittel will most certainly feature prominently in any flat stage.
If Kittel plans to win, however, he'll have to be faster than Mark Cavendish, who crashed out of the 2014 Tour during the 1st stage. He's won more mass-start Tour stages than anyone in history, but that doesn't mean he's prepared to rest on his laurels. He missed out on stage wins and a chance to wear Yellow last year, and after 12 wins already in 2015, the Manx Missile is ready for action.
Whereas Kittel and Cavendish are stage-winning machines, the Terminator—Peter Sagan—almost can't lose the Green Jersey competition, and does so by focusing on more than just stage victories. Sagan knows that to win the Points Classification, as he has the past three years, one has to be crafty. He places high in every sprint, but he also goes for, and routinely wins, intermediate sprint points. Whether he's dancing across the line in 1st place or popping a wheelie going up mountain passes in the grupetto, Sagan is also just a fun guy to watch. He was skunked on stage wins last year; will he bounce back and take one this time around?
André "The Gorilla" Greipel wins. A lot. He also has a streak that he intends to keep alive: since the 2008 Giro d'Italia, the big German has entered 8 Grand Tours, and has won at least one stage every time out. In the group sprints, when he times it right, he's as formidable as anyone. Don't be surprised to see him split wins on the flat stages with Cavendish and Kittel.
Peloton: The main body or group of riders. Also called the "pack," "field" and "group."
Stage: One of the individual daily races that make up the Tour. This year's event is composed of 21 days of racing (two individual time trials, one team time trial, and 18 road stages).
Individual Time Trial (also called "the race of truth" and "the race against the clock"): A special event where riders cover a set course alone. Every rider's time is recorded and then compared to determine who went the fastest. Time trials often play a major role in determining the overall race winner because the strongest riders go the fastest and gain time on those who don't have the horsepower to maintain top speed without the support of their team. Be on the lookout for the most expensive, aerodynamic, futuristic-looking wheels, helmets, and handlebars in this event.
General Classification (GC): This is the term used in stage racing for the current overall rider standings. Since stage races are comprised of multiple races, there are results for each race and also results for each rider's cumulative time for all stages. The person with the lowest time overall after all the races is first on GC and the winner of the race.
Maillot Jaune: The Yellow Jersey (left) is worn by the current race leader (see: General Classification). It is also a term used to refer to the leader. TV commentators might say, "The Yellow Jersey is flying today." The Yellow Jersey was created by Tour founder Henri Desgranges in 1913 to ensure the lead rider could be easily recognized by spectators. He chose yellow to honor a race sponsor, L'Equipe newspaper, who printed their pages on yellow paper. Interestingly, L'Equipe is still a major Tour sponsor and continues to use yellow paper.
Maillot Vert: The Green Jersey is worn by the leader in the points or sprinter's competition. Each stage has two to four intermediate sprints placed along the day's course. Points are awarded for the first three riders across the line at these sprints, and also for the top finishers at day's end. This jersey is highly sought after among the race's fastmen who battle for top placements during the flat stages. And unlike the other grand tours, the Tour awards more points at the finish of flat stages than hilly ones to prevent an overall contender from overshadowing the sprinters.
Maillot À Pois: The Polka Dot Jersey (right) is worn by the best climber in the King of the Mountains competition. Points are awarded at the top of designated climbs. As the climbs get tougher and correspondingly higher in ranking, more points are awarded.
Maillot Blanc: The White Jersey is worn by the leading rider who is under 26 years old. Sometimes these young talents go on to wear the Maillot Jaune in future editions of the Tour.
Rider Type: The size and shape of a rider often determines his racing specialty. Sprinters tend to be taller with ham-size legs ready to crush the pedals in a frenzy of speed. Climbers can be quite short, and all are rail thin for maximum anti-gravity advantage. All-around riders, the ones capable of winning the Tour, tend to be of average height and weight, and are blessed with the ability to climb, time trial and sprint at a very high level day in and day out.
Drafting: To ride so closely behind one or more fellow racers (left) that you are shielded from the wind, thereby saving considerable energy. The drafting effect increases as the size of a group grows, creating the potential for a number of riders to travel much faster than an individual cyclist (See: Paceline).
Attack: One of the more spectacular scenes in cycling is a lone rider, head down giving it their all to blast off the front of the field. These impressive leg-searing efforts are what makes bike racing so thrilling to watch. Nothing beats a high-speed chess match and sometimes a well-timed attack is exactly what a rider needs to speed to victory or get in the day's big breakaway.
Paceline: A formation of racers riding in a single-file line. Each racer spends some time riding at the front pushing the wind for those behind him. Sharing the workload allows a group to go faster than one rider on his own. (See: Drafting.)
Echelon: When a small group of racers forms a diagonal line across the road while riding into an oncoming side wind to best take advantage of the drafting potential. (See: Drafting.)
Breakaway: To ride away from the peloton in an effort to win a race. Because the peloton can ride much faster than an individual (see: Drafting and Paceline), breaking away is often a futile effort that usually leads to exhaustion with the peloton eventually catching and passing the hapless rider. However, sometimes the brazen attack pays off and the rider captures a dramatic win that can make his career.
Sprint: The final, crazed charge for the finish line at the end of a race. Top sprinters attempting to out accelerate their opponents can reach speeds over 40mph. The finishing chaos and speed often cause spectacular crashes.
Climb categories: Climbs are ranked on a scale of 1 to 4, with Category 1 being the most severe. However, there are climbs in the Tour that are so demanding they exceed this numerical ranking system. These "beyond category" climbs are referred to as Hors Catégorie (HC). Their extreme difficulty makes them some of the biggest factors when considering race strategy, as it's possible for a rider to gain minutes over a weaker rival. The tension and excitement around HC climbs also means the stages that feature them can be the most action packed of the whole Tour.
Descent: The tight, twisty mountain passes of Europe are notorious for rewarding world-class descenders and punishing those with less than superhuman bike-handling skills. It is common for descents to have upwards of 20 switchbacks in addition to other sharp curves that can make the difference between a race-winning effort and being reabsorbed by the pack. Some cyclists like Samuel Sanchez and Vincenzo Nibali wisely use descents to conserve energy and gain time over their rivals.
Domestique (Gregario): A racer who sacrifices his own chance of victory to help a teammate win. Tasks of these unsung heroes may include: carrying extra bottles and food for fellow riders, chasing breakaway groups, and even giving their bikes to the designated team leader should he have a mechanical problem. Simply put, domestiques do whatever is necessary to help their teammates win.
Equipment: Every rider has at least three bikes to choose from for any day of racing. A super-light rig for mountain stages, a deluxe aerodynamic machine for time trials, and a standard road bike for average racing days. Now, consider that every team uses at least 100 wheels and it's no wonder that a full-size bus is used for team and equipment transportation.
Directeur Sportif (Sport Director): The person responsible for coaching riders and managing almost all logistical concerns of the team. During a race, the Directeur Sportif drives behind the peloton watching live race coverage on a dashboard-mounted TV and informs his team on proper race strategy. He may also pass out drinks and help with medical or mechanical issues.
Auto Bus (Grupetto): This term refers to the large group of riders that band together on difficult mountain stages and simply try to finish the day while conserving as much energy as possible. After all, they are going to need it during the next grueling stage.
Crash: To fall off your bike and go "boom." As soon as a rider hits the deck, he is expected to remount and start racing again. Having a seriously broken bone is one of the very few things that will keep these tough men from continuing.
Time Limit (Time Cut): A way to eliminate the slowest riders in the race. After every stage a time cut is established by taking the winner's time and adding 10 to 20%. Riders who finish in excess of this buffer zone are not allowed to start the next day.
Caravan: A motorized circus composed of officials' vehicles, motorcycle police, team cars, medical vans, and photographers hanging precariously off the back of even more motorcycles.
How is the overall race winner determined?
Cumulative times are kept for all 21 stages. After the finish of the last stage, the rider who covered the whole trip around France in the least amount of time wins.
It seems like a lot of the time, racers are rolling along in one big group. How do riders gain and lose time against one another?
During this multi-day race, it's quite difficult for race favorites to gain or lose time against each other while on flat or rolling terrain, as drafting and teamwork cancel out individual rider strength differences. Therefore, the mountainous climbing stages and time trials have a heavy impact on deciding who the final winner will be, as both require a competitor to ride on his own, without the benefit of drafting or help from his team.
How can 198 guys race all day and then be awarded the same time at the finish?
When a large group of riders, possibly the entire field, comes to the finish in one huge group, everyone is awarded the finishing time of the first rider to cross the line. This is done to prevent the final sprint from becoming exceedingly chaotic. Therefore, the sprinting madmen get to battle over the stage win while everyone else rides in safely just behind them, knowing they will not be penalized for their caution.
If one or two guys can ride ahead of the peloton and win a stage, why doesn't this happen every day? And, why does the peloton allow riders to pedal away and gain a few minutes of advantage?
The Tour de France is an incredibly demanding event and conserving energy is an important aspect of team strategy. With conservation in mind, the peloton will allow an individual rider or small group of riders a time advantage, betting the escapees will burn out, slow down, and be reabsorbed by the pack. (The pack will also speed up to catch escaped riders as the finish nears.) Letting riders build up an advantage is a calculated risk made by the teams without riders in the breakaway group. Sometimes, the pack's gamble backfires and the breakaway group stays away until the finish to contest the win among themselves.
How can a racer win the Tour de France, but not win a single Stage?
This scenario is possible but rarely happens. However, because the Tour leader board is organized by total overall time, the most consistent racer wins. For example, always finishing with the first few riders during every crucial stage (but not winning) will result in a very low overall accumulated time. In contrast, using up loads of energy trying to win a stage may result in a one-day victory, but the stage-winning racer will usually pay for his energy output the next day, as exhaustion will more than likely cause him to finish near the back of the pack. Racers have a choice: ride steadily near the front of the race, never using up too much energy in the hopes of winning the whole Tour, or go all out attempting to win a stage, knowing full well that overall victory may be impossible.
The Tour de France is just an endurance event, right?
Yes, grand tour racing requires an extreme amount of endurance, but it's far more complex than that. The Tour, and pro road racing in general, requires massive amounts of muscular strength to keep up with the many intense accelerations during the race. The most obvious examples are the finishing sprints and attacks at the front of the peloton. These intense bursts regularly require riders to sprint in a big gear, similar to doing weightlifting squats of twice their body weight as fast as they can for 10 seconds to a minute.
When you consider that riders put in these efforts from 10 to 30 times each stage just to stay within the peloton, you begin to understand what a Herculean effort is involved. What's more, these muscular efforts create micro-tears in the muscles, which can only be cured by proper nutrition and rest, two things cyclists can't get enough of at the Tour. So, not only are the world's best cyclists in the top percentile of endurance aces, but they are also muscular athletes gifted with the ability to sprint day-in and day-out up mountains and across the flats. In bike racing, it's rarely the strongest who wins, but rather it's the rider who can make different types of max efforts and still arrive at the finish fresher than the others.
I know what the Green Jersey is, but how do they win it?
Unlike the exciting race for the Maillot Jaune, the points competition is a little bit more complicated than just cumulative time. On all the road stages, riders have 2 chances to score points that go toward their overall tally. These come in the form of one intermediate sprint roughly halfway through the stage and the finishing sprint. Points go 15 places deep in both, with the finish of course having more points up for grabs. At the stage finish, a maximum of 50 goes to the winner, 30 to second place, and 20 for third, depending on the stage type. Flat stages are worth the most and hilly, mountain and time trial days are worth less. This makes the Tour's points competition truly a race for the sprinters as it prevents the overall contenders from gobbling up all the points on days the fastmen can't compete.
Another interesting tidbit is how hard the fight for the Maillot Vert truly is. Even on rolling stages, the contenders must be acutely aware of their competitors. A few points (or 20!) lost in an intermediate sprint could be the difference between standing on the final podium in Paris and going home empty-handed. Often the points competition comes down to the final stage and even the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées. No matter who wins, though, they will still be many victories back of Erik Zabel's record six Green Jerseys.
There can't be good weather every day of the race. Are there rain delays?
Nope. Riders race in any and all weather conditions. From blistering heat waves to biblical deluges, there are few meteorological events that will get in the peloton's way (rarely stages will be altered in cases of extreme weather). Some of cycling's most legendary escapades occurred in inclement weather. Lance Armstrong won the Tour stage to Sestrière in a downpour, Bernard Hinault took Liège-Bastogne-Liège in a driving snowstorm and Andy Hampsten, the only American ever to win the Giro d'Italia, took control of the race during an epic blizzard in the mountains of Italy.
That guy just gave a teammate his bike! What's up with that?
The Tour is a team event and each team is comprised of nine riders. Within a team, there are one or two riders who hope to achieve a high overall finish. Most teams also have a sprint specialist trying for stage wins during the flat days. The remaining five or six riders are considered domestiques or helpers, and they do just that, as their job description includes carrying extra food and water, and chasing down breakaway groups. Amazingly, a domestique is even expected to give up his bicycle to a team leader should he have a mechanical issue.
Why is that rider talking into his shirt?
All racers carry miniature radios in their back pockets that allow them to talk with their teammates and team director while rolling down the road. The earpieces of these high-tech intercoms look like spy paraphernalia. The microphones stay hidden, clipped to the inside of the rider's collar. Therefore, when you see a rider "speaking into his jersey" he is actually using his microphone to talk with someone on his team. This on-the-fly communication is of great value, as it lets riders who are scattered throughout the pack plan race strategy and ride accordingly.
Don't they get hungry?
Yes, they get very hungry! Nutrition is so important to racing success that some say the Tour is partially won at the dinner table, as riders who successfully fulfill their daily need of 7,000 to 10,000 calories are more assured of optimum results. While actually racing, riders mostly consume liquid sugar in the form of sports gels and drinks (Coke is a favorite). It's also no surprise to see mini ham sandwiches, candy bars, and pastries peeking out of jersey pockets. At dinner, it's a full-on feeding frenzy: pasta, potatoes, rice, cereal, bread, fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat and yogurt is all fair game and consumed with gusto.
When do they go to the bathroom?
Ah, it's a question that someone had to ask. Many times the pack will make a group decision and stop for a quick "natural break" at the side of the road. Riders will also urinate off the bike, usually while coasting on lengthy downhills. If a rider really has to go and there's no downhill near, a teammate may push the bladder-challenged racer along as he relieves himself... hopefully while the TV cameras are not watching!