If you are a sports buff, right now is a great period. With the Wimbledon, FIFA Worldcup, and the Indian cricket team's tour of England going on, the Tour de France also kicks off this week. With respect to Tour De France, the drama has begun before the actual sport with last years champ being banned and reinstated to ride in last week before the start.
Although it's just a bicycle race, it could be a bit overwhelming for a newbie to follow it in detail. So, we have a 101 of the Tour to help you make more sense of it.
Tour De France is a team event and the organizers invite teams based on the number of points in the year. The points are awarded to every rider and consequently, the team, for winning in the UCI recognized races. Each team consists of 8 riders (in 2017, there were 9 riders per team). A typical team will consist of the following types of riders.
- Race Leader (The strongest rider in the group): The rest of the team will do the work required to help the race leader win. They may do the work in the wind, get water and nutrition back from cars, and sometimes, also give their bike or wheel if race leader has a mechanical issue. Sometimes there are two strong leaders and it makes the stages very interesting. At times it appears like the second in line is stronger than the leader. In fact this year Team Movistar has three leaders - Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa - making for an interesting watch!
- Sprinters: Sprinters primarily contest for the flatter stages which may end in a bunch sprint finish.
- Domestiques: Their primary job is to create the best opportunities for the race leader. This may mean burying themselves to catch a breakaway, or increasing the speed before reaching a section with crosswinds, or dropping back to team car & carrying water bottles.
The tour is spread over three weeks (July 7th-29th, this year) with a couple of rest days in between (16th and 23rd July). Each day of racing is called a stage. The winner of the day's race is called the winner of the stage.
Broadly the types of stages are as follows:
- ITT - Individual Time Trial: Riders start with a standard gap between each other and try to cover the distance in the shortest time. Riders are not allowed to draft any other rider, so they ride Time Trial bikes which helps position the rider in a significantly more aerodynamic position. The odd exception is when the ITT has a very hilly section. There have been TT stages in the past with one part extremely hilly and different teams have used different strategies. Some have ridden with only TT bikes while others have changed bikes mid way to suit the course. Usually one or two stages in a tour are ITT’s. The penultimate stage, Stage 20, on 28th July is an ITT of 31 km.
- TTT - Team Time Trial: This is very similar to ITT, however each team starts together and they are allowed to draft teammates. The time of the fourth/fifth position to cross the line is the time of the team. Riders ride Time Trial bikes. Usually one stage in a tour is a TTT. Stage 3, on 9th July is this years TTT of 35.5 km.
- Mass Start: Majority of the stages are mass starts where everyone starts together with the objective of crossing the finish line first. Riders are allowed to draft riders from any team. The terrain will vary across the stages. Usually the first week is flatter stages and they hit the mountains in the second week. Occasionally there could also be stages that include some cobble sections. This year, the 9th stage on 15th July is a 156.5 km stage from Arras to Roubaix covering 21.7 km of cobbled sections.
Interestingly, there are many winners and each category is characterised by a jersey
- The Overall Winner (also called GC winner - General Category) is the person who has the least amount of time taken to complete all the stages. There are time bonuses awarded to podium finishers at each stage. GC winner gets the yellow jersey.
- Young Rider is the best GC rider below 25 yrs. The best young rider wears the white jersey.
- Points Winner is one who has accumulated the maximum number of points across all stages and finishes the race. There are intermediate sections at many stages, and whoever crosses these first, earn points. These points have no bearings to determine GC position. They get the green jersey.
- KOM (King of Mountain) is someone who gets the most points at the intermediate hill sections. These points have no bearings to determine GC position. The KOM gets the polka dotted jersey.
A Bit More Information!
- Riders who finish after 10% of the stage winners time cannot continue the tour. The percentage actually depends on the average speed of the stage. The race officials have given exceptions in some special cases. This is very interesting as some sprinters may find it extremely difficult to complete the mountain stages, but there could be opportunity for stage wins later like the last stage which ends at Champs Elysee, Paris. So they have to ensure that they don't get kicked out of the tour to contest the more favourable stages later.
- There are 22 teams in this years race and each team has members other than the riders. They include - mechanics, drivers, masseurs, cooks, doctors, directeur sportif (like a coach).
- If a crash happens in the last 3 km, all the riders in the crash are given the time of the peloton.
- You would expect riders to ride throughout the race. But here's a quirky fact - Christopher Froome, the winner of 2016 tour, famously ran some distance towards the end of stage 12 @ Mt Ventoux on foot in 2016 as there was a crash and it took time for him to get a replacement bike!
- Finally a useful tip - cycling is probably the only sport which is best watched while playing the sport. So have your bike - trainer setup in front of your high speed internet display and burn those calories while cheering your favourites instead of sitting on the couch.