Explainer: The Tour de France

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The three-week, 1,714 mile Tour de France ends on July 22nd in Paris. If you're a little confused about the rules, strategy, and etiquette of this famous bike race, you're not alone. We asked Nick Legan, technical editor at VeloNews, to answer some of our and our listeners' basic questions about the Tour on the Brian Lehrer Show on 7/11. See his answers below.

How do they eat, sleep, and use the bathroom?

In a rush. They eat primarily on the bike. They’ll wake up several hours before the stage, have a pretty large breakfast, and then throughout the stage they’ll continuously eat. You’ll see them reaching in their back pockets for food – various snacks – and then eat as soon as the stage is over. Often times on the TV coverage you’ll see them stop kind of en masse for a “nature break. And then sleeping at night, the stages are a predetermined length and they will all have a hotel to go stay in.

I’ve heard there’s some kind of gentleman’s agreement to not race ahead if some guy has to slow down or stop to use the bathroom, true?

 It depends on who it is. There’s a hierarchy. If the Yellow Jersey stops – the current overall leader – stops that would certainly apply. But if it’s just some guy who timed his… needs poorly then they might not.

What is the “peloton”?

The peloton is a French word for the group of cyclists.

So it’s the big clump of riders, and then there’s the little pack of leaders who are riding a few minutes ahead of the peloton. Did those guys just sprint ahead of the peloton at the beginning?

Right. Often times the peloton will be attacked. So someone who is currently in the peloton will sprint ahead of the peloton with the ambition to win the stage or to take points in the various classifications. And then it’s up to the peloton to chase them down – or to let them go on some occasions – because it might not be in the particular team’s interest to chase.

Explain the yellow jersey. You’d think it would just be that the guy who finishes first is the leader, but it’s more complicated, right?

It is. The Yellow Jersey is the overall winner or the overall leader. So what they do is they add up your times from each individual stage and the person with the lowest accumulated time is the Yellow Jersey wearer.

Thomas Voeckler won today [7/11], so does he now wear the Yellow Jersey?

He does not. Again, he had lost time earlier in the race and didn’t make that time up today. So he’s not even close actually. He did however take over the “Climber’s Jersey” because today was the day with lots of climbing on offer.

The “Climber’s Jersey" is the polka dot one?

That is the polka dot one. So he was able to amass a lot of points in that competition and currently wears that jersey.

(Note: The Climber's Jersey is also called the "King of The Mountains" jersey.)

Because they think there’s something a little silly about climbing?

It has something to do with the sponsors. All the jerseys’ colors correspond to a sponsor of that jersey.

(Note: There are two additional jerseys.  The green jersey or the "Malliot Vert" is worn by the cyclist who has accumulated the most points.  Points are given for finishing a stage in first through fifteenth place.  Flat stages earn more points than mountain stages. The white jersey or the "Malliot Blanc" is the "Young Rider's Jersey" and is worn by the highest-placing cyclist under age 26.)

This year it seems like there’s a lot more crashes.  Is there a reason this year in the tactics why there are so many crashes early?

We’re not sure that there are more crashes to begin with. Sometimes sensationalism skews our impressions of these things and sometimes it’s just a big name who goes down and makes it seem like there are more crashes. That said, I do think that this race – it’s a more open year – there’s no clearly dominant team – team Sky is proving to be that team, but no team that took control in the early stages. So when all the teams figure that they have a shot they’ll all be racing more aggressively, and that, obviously, you can only fit so many people across the road.

How fast do they get going on the down hills?

Up to 60 miles per hour.

What are some good books to read about the tour?

My personal favorite right now is by Richard Moore, it’s called Slaying the Badger and it’s about the 1986 Tour de France that Greg Lamond won.

Is there a stage that amateurs can ride on?

There is. Every year the Tour de France organization has a ride called L’Etape du Tour, meaning a stage of the tour, and they do the full distance.

Why are there no women?

It’s a good question. There used to be a women’s Tour de France. There no longer is – it lost the sponsorship to keep it going – but there are currently a group of six women doing the entire Tour de France route as amateurs as a team one day ahead of the race just to promote women’s cycling. It’s called the Rêve Tour.

Can you explain the differences between the individual stages and the overall race? Why do they even have the stages? Why isn’t it just the first person to complete the whole course?

Well in essence, Bradley Wiggins at this point is – if you stopped and you added up how long it took each of the individual riders to ride the total distance they’ve ridden thus far – he is the winner. And so it’s a matter of adding up how long it takes them to do each stage. So there are also time trials, which are stages raced individually – you don’t have a team around you – over a given distance. So a couple of days ago they had a 40 km, 25 mile time trial and Bradley Wiggins raced that significantly faster than most of his competitors. So his time for that was much lower than the others, so he can afford to sit in and doesn’t have to win the other stages necessarily.

Listen to the full interview with Nick Legan on the Brian Lehrer Show.