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The Tour de France for beginners.

So they ride in a big circle round France, and the first one under the Arc de Triomphe wins a stack of cash right? Well…not quite.

For Tour de France debutants out there, here is a quick and dirty, back of the fag packet explanation of what the hell is going on out there in the French countryside over the next 3 weeks or so. (July 1st-23rd)

The basic principle is the following: there are a load of daily races (‘Stages’) in which every rider competes and the rider with the lowest overall time when they get to Paris on the final day wins the title. Riders compete in teams (more on that later), which consist of 9 riders each and the total field is some 180 competitors. Simple, right?

There is a bit more to it than that, and that must be why the Tour is one of the biggest media events in the global sporting calendar. This is an event worth millions in sponsorship and endorsements, and France grinds to a halt as the populace is gripped by ‘la grande boucle’ (the big loop) fever. Read on if you want to know why. So how do we know who is winning?

Everyone’s heard of the yellow jersey and this is the how you recognise who is heading the overall standings (“General Classification”) at the end of each day. You don’t necessarily have to be winning every stage to be in the coveted “Maillot Jaune”, in fact one leading rider rarely wins more that a handful of stages, if that. What counts is consistently being ‘there or thereabouts’ for the full three weeks of the Tour, on the flat stages, in the mountains and in the time trials, with a few stellar performances mixed in of course. Teamwork and sacrifice

Each of the teams clearly has one key rider who has realistic chances of contesting the overall title, indeed there would little room for more than one of these Herculean egos in each team. The other guys are not just there to make up numbers, however, and it is their teamwork and self-sacrifice that can make the difference for the principal rider. Be it shuttling drinks from the team car at the back of the pack up to the leader, or sheltering him from the wind if he is trying to catch up after mechanical problems, or even taking an aggressive lead of the pack to prevent a breakaway from a rival team, these foot soldiers are crucial to the prospects of their leader. On the flat

The Tour traditionally begins with a time trial, which determines who is going to be in the yellow jersey on the first day of actual racing, and the initial stages usually wind their way around the flat countryside of Northern France. This is sprinter territory and the stages are usually dominated by the big men with flat out speed and unpronounceable names (Dmitri Abdoujaporov, aka “The Tashkent Terror” being a good example, although now retired).

Often the main pack of riders (‘le peloton’) will finish en masse and in these occasions everyone in the pack gets the same time. You can, however, win bonus seconds to be deducted from your time by winning sprints en route at certain designated points and these are often exciting points to watch, not to mention dangerous to compete. Look out for specialist sprinters Jaan Kirsipuu (AG2R) and Tom Steels (Mapei). The yellow jersey will change hands often during this period, but the main protagonists will be lurking there or thereabouts ready to make their main moves in later stages.

Gravity
The mountain stages of the Tour is really where the race is decided. These are hard-core climbs, up to around 2,000 metres altitude at times and over 15 km at gradients of 7 or 8%. This really sorts the wheat from the chaff and if you lose the plot in the mountains you’ll struggle to compete for the rest of the Tour. The peloton often drops off the leaders’ pace and some enthralling battles ensue between the big names. Watch for Richard Virenque of the Polti team, and 1998 winner Marco Pantani (Mercatone Uno – Albacom) for some real lung-bursting attitude. The key stages this year are around 14 and 15, with the traditional climb up Alpe d’Huez being replaced by a haul up to high-altitude ski resort Morzine.

Watching the clock
However well you do in the hills, however, the Tour really is a race for the all-rounder. Virenque, for all his climbing skills, has never really got to grips with the time trials and as a result has yet to win the Tour. Pantani is probably an exception in a climber who has won the Tour, whereas the 5 times champion Miguel Indurain of Spain was just omnipotent in every stage (it also helps to have a resting pulse at which most of us would be dead). Quick jersey guide:

Yellow: Overall race leader.
Green: Sprinter’s jersey. Points awarded for intermediate and final sprints.
Polka dot: King of the mountains: Points awarded for mountain peaks.

Anyway, hopefully that clears up any confusion about what is going on out there. The main thing is just sit back and enjoy 3 weeks of quality action. If you still want more, then either follow it all here on BIKEmagic, watch daily highlights on Channel 4, or for a bit more background check out the official Tour de France site.

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