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Tour De France Champs Elysées Podium

Whilst grabbing a quick lunchtime coffee in the bright light of a fiery ball in the sky (we’re not too sure what this is, answers on a postcard please), we realised that there were things about the Tour de France that we didn’t know, but we’d gone too far down the line to be able to ask!  A bit like when you’ve forgotten someone’s name and left it too long, there were aspects of the Tour’s racing and tradition that we were a bit scared to admit to not understanding.  So the idea was born, a basic guide to the TdF would be created, thus saving us all the embarrassment of asking those obvious questions!

What is it?

The Tour de France is a 3 week stage race (multiple stages to the whole race) around France.  This year it starts in the Vendee region of France on Saturday the 2nd July, before working its way south to the Pyrenees (around the 14th July), then along the Riviera to the French/Italian Alps and up to Paris and the final sprint along the Champs-Elysees.

The Jerseys:

At the end of every stage the jerseys are awarded to whichever rider is in the lead for that particular competition at the time.  It’s re-evaluated every day, so you might have a completely different rider in the yellow jersey from one day to the next.  It’s the rider who is wearing (and retains) the particular jersey in the final stage that will win it.  The yellow jersey is the most famous, but there are some others to look out for too:

Cadel 'Cuddles' Evans in the yellow jersey.

Yellow Jersey/Maillot Jaune: The leader of the tour wears the famous yellow jersey.  To win the Tour you need to basically cover the distance in the shortest time possible.  The rider who currently has the least riding time (the quickest) is allowed to wear the ‘maillot jaune’.  But remember it’s about total ride time, you could win 14 out of 21 stages and still not win the yellow jersey overall.

Pellizotti in the Polka Dot jersey, the polka bike is optional!

Green jersey: There are also other jerseys which you can win; the Green Jersey or Sprinters jersey is won by the rider who gains the most ‘sprint points’. On a typical stage there will be a village or marker along the way at which the first three riders over the line gain these ‘sprint points’. Sprint points tend to be awarded and gained on the early flatter stages where a sprint finish is more likely, unlike in the mountains where the Polka Dot Jersey is the aim.  Mark Cavendish must be aiming for the green jersey this year, despite some stellar performances in the last two years the green jersey has eluded him.  Fingers crossed.

Polka Dot Jersey: The first riders over the summit of each climb get awarded points. The one with the most points gets the Polka Dot Jersey at the end of the day and different categories of climb give you more points. Climbs are categorised 4, 3, 2, 1 and HC (or Hors Category). 4 being easiest and HC being ‘out of category’ or a true monster such as The Col du Tourmalet for example.

White Jersey: The final jersey is the White Jersey which is the Young Riders’ Jersey. This one is a bit more simple and it gets worn by the best placed rider under 25 years of age. A good sign of future potential – Andy Schleck has spent quite a lot of time in it!

When a rider is in the position of wearing both jerseys, then the more ‘important’ or prestigious jersey will rule. Yellow – Green – Polka Dot is the order of importance. The other main prizes are for the most ‘combative rider’ who has a white on red number for being the most active and aggressive member of the peloton and the best placed team who all wear black on yellow numbers.

Race Terms:

Now we’ve taken a look at the jerseys, lets take a look at some of the phrases the commentators will use!

Peloton: Once the race is under way, the main mass of riders is collectively known as the ‘peloton’. This is French for ‘little ball’ and by riding in a group, the riders can shelter from the wind and travel much faster than a lone breakaway rider or group ahead.

Breakaway: If a rider is feeling strong and/or brave, he will ‘breakaway’ solo or in a small group and try to make up time on the main peloton which is where the current leader tends to sit for safety and to be with his team. If a breakaway succeeds they often gain many minutes on the leader, if not, they have given their team a lot of airtime which makes for happy sponsors!

The Echelon formation, useful in crosswinds it shows riders moving across and off in the shelter of the wind.

Echelon: If the wind is blowing from the side then an ‘echelon’ will form. Rather than a ball of riders the group will camber off to one side of the road and shelter that way – hard to describe on here but you’ll see it on the flat windy stages coming up.

Tete de la course: On race coverage at the top of the screen you will  see ‘tête de la course’, this means you’re watching the leaders of the race or breakaway riders.

Arrière du peloton: These are the back markers or guys catching up with their Team Director in the car.

Cadence: the speed at which a riders cranks are turning. A high cadence means ‘pedalling really fast’ or spinning. A style made popular by Lance Armstrong and his ‘less effort, more often’ approach to cycling and it doesn’t seem to be that bad! Grinding or pedalling squares is the opposite, when a rider is in a big gear and spinning slowly.

Lantern Rouge: a small ornament worn by the last rider in the overall standings. A historic relic which has been a tradition in recent years – originally a lantern used by railway workers.

Flamme Rouge: the 1km to go tunnel/banner. A massive inflatable tower which bridges the road and has a small red flag on the top to signify the final 1000m to go.

Not the easiest job in the world, patching people up whilst hanging out of a car at 25mph!

The white convertible car: This is the race medical car which you are allowed to hold onto if being treated. Drafting and holding onto the other cars is not strictly allowed though a blind eye will be turned if you’re catching back up after a mechanical issue or puncture, anyone who abuses this will soon be seen and shouted at by the commissaire.

Commissaire: the referee or judge of the race somewhere in the cavalcade of red cars at the front (often seen standing up through the sunroof). Like the pope, but without the bullet proof glass.

The broom wagon!

Broom Wagon: the last van in the procession which will collect any crashers or injured riders who can’t fit into the team car. It is said to ‘sweep up’ after the race has passed through. A note for all the greenies – a team of people checks the route once the riders have passed and collect all the bottles and any rubbish which may have fallen/been thrown away by the riders and cavalcade.

Sticky Bottle: Not an unfortunate energy drink spillage, you’ll see this when a rider wants a little help in getting back to the group. A bottle will be passed from the car to the rider and on the exchange a good ‘shove’ will be given by the person in the car. Basically, the rider holds on for a bit too long and this gives the rider an extra push to get back on the group.

Rider Types

: A bit like super heroes, riders have certain specialities:

Every domestique has his day - this year Johan van Summeren won the infamous Paris-Roubaix, so don't count them out yet...

Climber: to be a climber you need to be light, powerful and have a great pair of lungs. When the Tour hits the big Alps you’ll see the small light guys simply riding past the heavier, stronger sprinter type riders. They often have a very ‘fluid’ style and can react to sharp inclines and efforts while climbing steadily better than the rest.  When it comes to climbing, your power to weight ratio is king.

Domestiques: These are the guys who ‘serve’ the team leader and his companions. Their job is to fetch bottles (aka bidons) and food (sometimes in a musette – the French style of cotton bag with one strap) from the car and bring it back up to the front. They also are used to set the pace on climbs and shelter the team leader from any wind. It seems like they will be the under appreciated member, but at the end of the race, they know their work is done when their guy wins.  Watch out though, Greg Lemond was a domestique in 1985, but won the Tour in ’86.

Sprinter: See Mr Cavendish for more info. He’s very strong in a sprint though he’d never get to the finish line at the front without his team and lead-out crew to deliver him to the final few hundred metres. There is quite simply no one faster over the last few hundred metres of a race. Explosive power though only for a limited time.

Time Trial specialist: Fairly self explanatory. A very strong rider who can put the power down steadily over the distance. Unless it’s a hilly TT, weight isn’t so important here, muscle and power rule!  Watch out for Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) and Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) at the tour, they’ve all been going very well!

Lance, one of the great GC riders in the zone.

General Classification (GC) Rider: Check out Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, they’re classic GC riders – good all round and they excel in the mountains. While being very good at most disciplines they can climb with the best. Lance Armstrong is another great example of a classic GC rider. As well as having great all round capabilities, GC riders also need a good team and brains behind the scene to have a chance of winning overall, not to mention a bit of luck.  Finally, GC riders know how to really suffer, they spend a long time in the pain cave.

So that’s some of the terminology you’ll hear while watching, now it’s time for some frequently asked questions…


Didi the Devil.

Who is the guy with a beard I see dressed as a devil? The bearded devil is a chap called Dieter ‘Didi’ Senft.  Since 1993 he’s been ‘supporting’ riders in his custom painted motorhome at many of the big European races.  When not in his devil costume, he’s an inventor!

Are the Shack Attack as deadly as their name would suggest?Yes.  Nobody expects the Shack attack.

Will Andy Schleck be using a chain catcher? We hope so.

The French Brown bear, slightly more erudite but it will still eat you.

Are there any bears in France? All you bear spotters can rejoice!  The Pyrenees is home to a small number of one of my favourite bears; the brown bear.  You’re unlikely to see one, but in the back of their minds the riders will know they’re there if they have a puncture…

What pets do the riders own? This is a question we’ve had a few times, in truth we’re not sure but we’ve had a couple of guesses – check out Riders and Their Pets and Riders and Their Pets The Return and let us know what you think.

There we go, a look at the basics of the Tour de France, have you got any questions we missed?  Any favourite Didi the Devil moments?  If so then get in touch by commenting below.

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