Le Tour 2012

With the Olympics this year, and some sort of football tournament, it'd be easy to overlook what is probably the greatest single sporting spectacle on the planet, the Tour de France. It's a single competition over three weeks, covering 3479km (this year). Cycling races are complex beasts, and can be confusing to the novice, so here's the quick starter.

  1. There are teams
  2. Cycling closely behind someone at speed means you expend less energy. This is important for top athletes who are evenly matched, it's a total hazard for the lower speed commuter and so isn't advised in this situation!
  3. The above leads to strategy with some teams working for yellow, some for green, some for the team competition and some simply to get their sponsors as much screentime as possible by breaking away.
  4. There are several competitions. The big one is the yellow jersey. This is for the person who gets the smallest total time. The British hope here is Bradley Wiggins in Team Sky (Olympics allowing)
  5. The green jersey is the points jersey. Points are awarded for various feats, such as crossing the line first on a stage, or reaching an intermediate sprint. It is difficult to do this from day to day, so green jersey contenders pick their moments and tend to come in late on stages when they're not in contention. The British hope here is Mark Cavendish in Team Sky (Olympics allowing)
  6. The polka dot jersey is awarded to the person who gets most points for climbs
  7. There are jerseys for young riders, and for 'most combative' (awarded by judges) as well as a team competition.
  8. The big bunch of riders is called the pelaton. French is used a lot for cycling terms.
  9. If there is a good effort, you will often hear the commentator (especially on Eurosport) say 'Chapeau', i.e. a tip of the hat. The 'Lanterne Rouge' for example is the rider with the longest overall time (in a group ride, they'd be carrying the red light to alert cars).
  10. Sometimes riders will escape the peloton. They do this for screentime. Occasionally, they stay away and get a stage win, but this is tough as the pelaton can ride more efficiently. If a breakaway contains a rider who is in contention for a jersey, the breakaway is more likely to be hunted down by the peloton.
  11. A team will have riders who do different jobs, e.g. act as 'lead out' man, i.e. a movable wind-break for the sprinter, who will then arrive a few hundred metres from the line relatively fresh - or a 'domestique' whose job it is to fall back to the team car and deliver water to the team at the front, and then repeat - this exertion usually means they aren't in contention for the stage.
  12. There is some etiquette, such as "Don't start to attack when your main contender has a mechanical issue"(although, if already attacking, it's a different issue) and "If the peloton is stopping for a 'comfort break', just roll along until everyone has had a chance to pee"
  13. Finally, you hear a lot about 'doping'. This did used to be a big issue, but cycling these days is very clean - there are 'biological passports' in place - and when you do hear of something, it's actually a good thing as it's somebody being caught and the sport doing its utmost to police itself.

If you watch the tour live, you need to watch it with a decent commentator (I like the Eurosport coverage, they do live tweeting and interact with the audience) - there's a lot of 'rolling along' and so they do explain things for newbies (without overdoing it for those who don't need explanations).

A grand tour is really is like a game of mobile chess, especially on big mountain stages where riders will try to break their rivals by attacking and pushing them over the edge.

When watching live I tend to have it as 'background noise' and pick up when something interesting happens, but it really kicks off (usually) in the last 50km, and this is what you'll get on a highlights package (ITV4 or Eurosport usually).

Do give it a try, it really can be compelling stuff.

I've put the course for 2012 below - in 2013 it will be in Corsica.

Stage Type Date Start and Finish Distance
P Prologue Saturday 30 June Liège ⇒ Liège 6.4 km
1 Plain Sunday 1 July Liège ⇒ Seraing 198 km
2 Plain Monday 2 July Visé ⇒ Tournai 207.5 km
3 Medium mountains Tuesday 3 July Orchies ⇒ Boulogne-sur-Mer 197 km
4 Plain Wednesday 4 July Abbeville ⇒ Rouen 214.5 km
5 Plain Thursday 5 July Rouen ⇒ Saint-Quentin 196.5 km
6 Plain Friday 6 July Épernay ⇒ Metz 207.5 km
7 Medium mountains Saturday 7 July Tomblaine ⇒ La Planche des Belles Filles 199 km
8 Medium mountains Sunday 8 July Belfort ⇒ Porrentruy 157.5 km
9 Individual time-trial Monday 9 July Arc-et-Senans ⇒ Besançon 41.5 km
10 High Mountains Wednesday 11 July Mâcon ⇒ Bellegarde-sur-Valserine 194.5 km
11 High Mountains Thursday 12 July Albertville ⇒ La Toussuire - Les Sybelles 148 km
12 Medium mountains Friday 13 July Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne ⇒ Annonay Davézieux 226 km
13 Plain Saturday 14 July Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux ⇒ Le Cap d’Agde 217 km
14 High Mountains Sunday 15 July Limoux ⇒ Foix 191 km
15 Plain Monday 16 July Samatan ⇒ Pau 158.5 km
16 High Mountains Wednesday 18 July Pau ⇒ Bagnères-de-Luchon 197 km
17 High Mountains Thursday 19 July Bagnères-de-Luchon ⇒ Peyragudes 143.5 km
18 Plain Friday 20 July Blagnac ⇒ Brive-la-Gaillarde 222.5 km
19 Individual time-trial Saturday 21 July Bonneval ⇒ Chartres 53.5 km
20 Plain Sunday 22 July Rambouillet ⇒ Paris Champs-Élysées 120 km
Table Built: Wednesday, 06 June 2012 20:00 UK