Cycling is thrilling whether you’re careening down a mountain or dodging cars on city streets. But if you think your morning commute is a rush, we dare you to try following professional cycling.
The Tour de France — the world’s most famous cycling race — starts on July 4th, and if words like peloton and “breakaway” leave you scratching your head, read on.
The Tour is a monster of a race: 198 riders on 22 teams will navigate over 2098 miles, about the driving distance from Washington, DC to Salt Lake City, Utah, over the course of 21 days.
“When I first started watching the Tour de France, it was a curiosity,” says cycling and transportation advocate, avid road cyclist and ardent Tour de France fan Craig Chester. “It goes all around France and the announcer talks about the castles and the landscape.” But he says it wasn’t until he began cycling himself that he really began to get into the details like the stages and team strategy that make the Tour special. “There’s a lot going on,” he explains.
Chester says he first became aware of the race as a child when he spotted a poster of Greg Lemond on the wall of his local bike store. “He was the first American to win the Tour de France,” Chester says, adding “now he’s the only one,” a reference to 7-time champion, American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of those titles three years ago for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Just like other sports, the Tour de France has winners and losers, but with nearly 200 riders spread over miles of terrain, it can be difficult to know who to watch.
The key word here is maillots — the color-coded jerseys that signify the leaders in four separate categories at different points during the race.
Maillot jaune — yellow jersey. The 21-day competition may have 20 distinct stages, but there’s only one winner of the Tour de France and he’s the one wearing the maillot jaune at the end of the race. “Every cyclist dreams of being him,” says Chester, “To wear the yellow jersey under the Arc de Triomphe.” The wearer of the yellow jersey is the cyclist who has the best time over all. The time is recalculated at the end of each stage, so the maillot jaune can change hands several times during the Tour until the last stage, which always takes winners to the iconic podium at the Arc de Triomphe.
Maillot vert — green jersey. This is based on points awarded to cyclists who finish well at certain checkpoints during each stage. Because it’s necessary to outrank the other cyclists when placing at each checkpoint, the quest for this jersey is known as the “sprinter’s competition.”
Maillot à pois — polka dot jersey. This jersey is also called the mountains classification. “Sometimes a rider has no chance of winning the Tour,” explains Chester, “but he might be really good at climbing and have a chance to wear the maillot à pois — the king of the mountain jersey.” This year’s tour will have 7 mountain stages.
Maillot blanc — this jersey is like the maillot jaune only it’s reserved for the best rider under 26 years old, or the best young rider.
Keep an eye out for the riders sporting these, and you’ll be able to start making sense of just who’s who in the giant mass of riders tearing up the roads of France in July.
Know your Peloton
Speaking of a giant mass of riders, that group is called a peloton. With nearly 200 riders involved in the tour, the peloton is quite a sight from land or air careening through the French countryside. But this is much more than a bunch of cyclists trying to keep up: how cyclists behave in the peloton can have a huge effect on the outcome of the race.
“There’s strategy involved,” explains Chester, “riders save energy. They use about 30-40% less energy by riding in the peloton.”
With three weeks and 2098 miles of race, chances are you won’t be able to watch the whole Tour de France. So what are the different stages and which ones should you be sure not to miss?
The 2015 Tour de France route includes nine flat stages, three hill stages, seven mountain stages, and two time trial stages.
Riders to watch
Tour de France teams are international and organized by sponsor. A sport that used to be dominated by the French, Belgians and Italians has gone totally global. “Now there’s Spain, the US and Germany,” says Chester, “even Columbia.”
Nairo Quintana, a Colombian rider who is a climbing specialist, is a serious contender for the yellow jersey this year, especially since many believe the Tour de France will be decided in the mountain stages late in the race. Other cyclists to watch include British rider Chris Froome, 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali, and Alberto Contador.
“This year Contador won the Giro d’Italia and he’s going to race in the Tour which is unique nowadays,” says Chester, referring to perhaps the second most important cycling race after the Tour de France,”He’s going for the Giro/Tour de France double which hasn’t been done since 1998.”
A Guardian article that interviewed Froome suggested this year might be one of the most closely-fought Tour de France race in recent history. Pumped yet? In case you can’t fly to France and be a part of the excitement in person, look for our list of places to watch the Tour de France in your city.