You’d be forgiven for thinking the Tour de France isn’t interesting beyond the final 500 metres of each day. A century of tradition, mishaps and technological advancements have led to the strange and intricate tactics and rules that shape today’s race. There’s a lot to see over the three weeks and 3,500km around the best of the French landscape.
The Tour began in 1903 as a publicity stunt for a failing sports newspaper. The leaders of the overall, climbing and sprint classifications still wear jerseys in colours harking back to the original sponsors. The iconic yellow jersey of the race leader is a nod to the yellow pages of L’Auto, the paper that invented Le Tour.
There are four classification jerseys in the race; the yellow jersey is the rider with the lowest cumulative time and overall race lead, the green jersey is the leader of the points classification in the sprints, the red and white polka dot jersey is the leader of the mountains points classification and finally, the white jersey is the best placed young rider (under 26).
Cycling is a team sport. Each team enters with distinct objectives. Riders that go on to win never do so without the help of their teammates. Some teams gain places at the Tour as ‘wildcard’ entries. These are typically lower-level French teams and their aim is to win stages, get in the breakaway and get as much screen time for their sponsors as possible. Teams gunning for overall victory have an unwritten obligation to chase down and control these attacks from the head of the main group known as the ‘peloton’.
Teams who are looking to win the race overall will have one or more leaders who will typically be strongest in the mountains and in the individual time trial stages where each rider will race against the clock. These teams will be made up of other strong riders known as ‘domestiques’ who sacrifice their own chances to drag their team leaders as close to the finish as possible before they make their winning move.
Pro riders take huge risks whilst racing. They are chasing million-dollar contracts where every second counts and will risk life and limb to get themselves into winning positions. Crashes are a part of racing and most riders have a horror story. The first stage of the 2020 Tour was a rare case where we witnessed dozens of crashes taking out major names. Riders and teams will fight for positions toward the front as the race approaches the finish not only to contest the sprint but also to keep their stars safe.
There is increasingly more and more money in the sport. This means greater resources and lots of juicy new tech for fans and riders to ogle over. The governing body, the UCI with its love of tradition limits the weight of bikes at being no less than 6.8kg. This rule was introduced decades ago as a safety measure although today is a point of contention with most top end bikes easily coming in safely below this limit. This means pro teams regularly add weights to the modern space ships their sponsors equip them with.
The Tour de France is a race of three weeks that is won by margins of minutes or even seconds. The final day is traditionally a champagne procession through the streets of Paris. The cease-fire allows for plenty of smiles and photo opportunities. The notable exception to this was 1989 when the race organisers scheduled an individual time trial for the final day. This solo race against the clock allowed second-place Greg Lemond to overtake the race leader Laurent Fignon by a margin of 8 seconds to take overall victory.