With the 101st edition of Tour de France having flagged off last week, it is only appropriate that we simplify the tour so that newbies can follow it with a better understanding.
What is Tour de France?
Tour de France is an annual 21 stage bicycle race held in France with occasional passes through the nearby countries. It is an event of ultimate testing of a cyclist’s will power and endurance for it stretches over 3 weeks and covers approximately 3500 kms spread over multiple terrains. To put this into perspective completing the Tour de France would be equivalent to cycling across the breadth of a continent such as, from London to Tel Aviv, New York to Las Vegas or Melbourne to Perth.
Despite being century old in tradition, the greatest impetus of watching this competition is for its flexibility and for the variety it offers. Over the years, the organizers have mixed different styles of racing into the tour to keep it interesting over three weeks. The race often begins with a Prologue, which is a short race of less than 8km. The race is a time trial and the winner of this stretch has the advantage of gaining leadership while going into the first leg of the tour. The riders race on flat or rolling type of terrains in the country side of France through the first week of the race. Over the next couple of weeks, the race heats up to traversing the more strenuous mountain terrains where the racers are not only required to tread upstream, but also battle weather challenges as they ride into the snow-capped peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees.
How it all began.
The inaugural race began with 60 competitors, of which only 21 completed the race thereby establishing the rigorous nature of the tour. Maurice Garin won the race by being nearly 65 hours ahead of the last person to complete the race. Unlikely modern day tour, these were far more rough considering the racers had to wade through the local cars and obstacles and were often victims of bicycle malfunction caused by fans of other riders.
Transformation through the years
During the initial years, the Tour was open for anybody willing to compete. Most of the riders were in teams sponsored by major bicycle companies; a portion of them were individual competitors, also known as tourist – routier or ‘tourists of the roads’, who were allowed to compete on the condition that they made no demands whatsoever with the organizers. Over the years, some of the most enthralling performers belonged to this category. However, post 1930s, the tours did not entertain individual riders unless they were introduced as a special group by Desgrange. Also, after 1904, night-riding had also been removed as the judges were unable to keep track of the participants under poor lighting. This reduced the overall traversing distance of a day although the emphasis still remained on endurance. So, the difficulty level was increased to a point where it’d be surprising if more than one rider made it through the ordeal.
The demanding nature of the race has curbed the public’s imagination and the race has since been held continuously except for when it was stopped for 10 years between the two world wars. As the tour began to gain prominence, its duration was lengthened and it began attracting participants from all over the globe. Today, the sport predominantly consists of UCI Pro Teams apart from the teams invited by the organizers. The modern day edition is held over 23 days where the participants navigate through 21 stages – one stage a day in addition to two rest days.
Even as the route of the modern Tour de France changes with each year, its format is still intact with the winner being the one with the least cumulative time across the three different types of stage categories. – time trial, flat or rolling terrain and the mountain terrain.
The winner of the overall classification receives a yellow jersey, although through the course of the race it is transferred between the competitors depending on who leads at the end of each stage.
Jerseys and their significance.
The Tour de France, today, has 21 teams comprising of 9 men each, with racers from each team wearing the same colour jerseys that carry logos of their sponsors. In addition to these, there are distinctive coloured jerseys which hold special merit.
The maillot jaune or the yellow jersey is the most coveted one of the lot for it is awarded to the overall champion. But what is the significance of the colour yellow? As this sport originated to promote L’ Auto, the newspaper was also printed on yellow paper to give it a distinctive edge and hence the yellow jersey is an attribution to the sport’s history.
The maillot vert or green jersey represents the race’s best sprinter. The pink and red polka dot jersey is given to the race’s best climber. The white jersey is awarded to the highest ranked rider less than 25 years of age. In addition to this, the reigning World and National champions wear distinctive jerseys with multi-coloured strips that represent their country’s colours.
On why cycling is the most beautiful sport.
In addition to being a supremely fit athlete and having a strong mental endurance, a rider also has to have a cooperative team and a lot of good luck, failing which the Tour could be nightmarish. On a given day, a rider could be travelling at anything close to 0-70 kilometres per hour and sometimes even over 80 kilometres per hour at the finishing leg. A minor slip on the mountains or a tumble across the terrains could prove fatal for the cyclist as well as the people following right behind. In addition to this, riders have to battle varying weather conditions, paparazzi and fans who sometimes go overboard with their enthusiasm.
Among the most effective energy saving techniques, is the peloton, where riders drive close behind or alongside their teammates. Apart from establishing camaraderie with team-mates, this technique when well drafted, helps reduce the drag effect of the wind. By riding in the middle of a well-formed peloton, a rider can conserve upto 40 percent of his energy. This strategy is used to keep the team’s key performers sufficiently energetic through the race.
"Bradley Wiggins Mark Cavendish - 2012 Tour de France" - Josh Hallett from Winter Haven, FL, USA - Bradley Wiggins - 2012 Tour de France. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
One can’t simply hope to finish the race by riding alongside a group. Eventually, the top talent breaks free and strides ahead, dodging rival teams’ pelotons that often work to hinder them. Sometimes a weak link of the team is often left behind as they stall the overall performance of the team. In cyclists’ terms, this is referred to as cracking.
The pattern formation of muti-coloured jerseys against the beautiful backdrop of the French countryside; selfless teammates performing their best so that their key performer can find their way to glory; cracking cyclists of varied teams competing against one another and channelizing their rivalry in an attempt to motivate themselves ahead in the race – all provide one hell of an emotional roller-coaster that draws fifteen million people across the world every July , year after year. If you’ve made it till here, I can assure you this is only a glimpse of why Tour de France is one of the most spectacular events on the face of Earth.
By Sneha Sankar