Although I’ve slowly but surely been developing a moderate interest in soccer, I mean football, over these past few weeks, it all went down in a fiery blaze this past Saturday when my favorite sporting event finally started; the 97th installment of le Tour de France. As world cup fanatics insist on the term ‘football’, cycling enthusiasts always refer to it as ‘le Tour’, not ‘the Tour’, regardless of their language of choice.
What may first seem like a bunch of spandex-clad European boys cycling through the French countryside (which don’t get me wrong, is fun in itself) is in fact one of the most fascinating as well as historically and culturally rich sporting events currently in existence. I wanted to share a bit of background, as well as a bit of insight into my obsession with this event, and hopefully persuade a few more Tour followers along the way.
At the beginning of the 20th century, what is still perceived as a borderline insane plan was conceived by Géo Lefèvre, a journalist with L’Auto magazine at the time. The plan; a 2,500km long cycle race across France. His editor at the time, Henri Desgrange, saw potential in this plan and backed it fully, and on July 1st 1903, sixty brave pioneers set out on their bicycles from Montgeron on the first ever Tour. After six mammoth stages, including a 471km ride from Nantes to Paris, only 21 riders, dubbed ‘routiers’, finished the journey, led by Marice Garin.
Provoked by a mixture of astonishment and admiration, the sporting public was soon won over and spectators flocked to the roadsides by the hundreds. The French people as a whole took kindly to this unusual event that put their towns, countryside, and since 1910, even their mountains in the spotlight. Le Tour has both been affected by and kept up with the times. As did France, it benefited from the introduction of paid holidays in 1936, it has survived both World Wars despite not running for a total of 12 years as a result, it has shared France’s economic and political rises and falls, and thanks to globalization, has opened itself up to foreign countries. Despite often being at the forefront of some of the current global sporting scandals, le Tour continues to grow and gain strength from its century of experience.
Le Tour, Explained
As I mentioned before, there is much more to le Tour than simply cycling through the French countryside. Le Tour consists of 21 daily races, or stages, which in total cover no more than 3,600km and alternate annually between clockwise and counterclockwise circuits of France. These stages span over three weeks and usually include a prologue, a mix of flat, mountain and medium-mountain stages, an individual time-trial and sometimes a team time trial, and two rest days, which are also sometimes used to transport riders from a finish in one town to a start in another.The New York Times described le Tour as “arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events”, with effort compared to “running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks”, and the total elevation of the climbs compared to “climbing three Everests”.
Since 1920, le Tour has been open to teams of riders, first backed by sponsorship, which then switched to national teams in the 1930’s, and then back to corporately sponsored teams in the 1950’s. Today, between 20 and 22 teams consisting of nine riders in each are invited to compete by the race organizer, the Amuary Sport Organization. Team members help each other throughout the race and managers and mechanics in cars follow the bulk of the riders, also referred to as the peloton.
Riders are ranked by the time taken throughout the race in a ranking called the general classification. There are time deductions for finishing well in a stage or being the first to pass an intermediate point. Although rare, it is possible to win overall without winning a stage, as Greg LeMond did in 1990.
At the end of each stage, an award is given to the winner of that stage, and four jerseys are handed out. First, the infamous yellow jersey, which is given to the overall leader, being the rider with the shortest accumulated time thus far.
The green jersey is the ‘points’ or ‘sprinting’ jersey. Throughout le Tour, there are various sections of the race that are sectioned off as ‘sprints’, and points are awarded to the first, second and third riders to complete that portion, with the green jersey going to the rider with the highest accumulation of these points.
The king of the mountains jersey, or the white jersey with red polka dots, is similar to the green jersey, except the sections of the race associated with this jersey are steep climbs instead of sprints.
Finally, there is the white jersey, or the young rider classification, which is the newest of the four. Riders in this category must be less than 26 years of age as of January 1st of that year, and this jersey is awarded to the rider in this category with the fastest time. These jerseys are given out at the end of each stage for their respective winners to wear during the next stage, and the overall winners are declared at the end of le Tour, which concludes at the famous Champs-Élysées.
There are also awards given out for combative riders as well as the award for the fastest team. Although most strive for the elusive yellow jersey, there is also a high level of competition for the other three as well. The ‘sprinters’ shine during the flatter stages during the beginning and end of le Tour, and the ‘climbers’ come out of the woodwork during the treacherous mountain stages that climb the French Alps and Pyrenees Mountains, making for an exceptionally exciting competition.
The Equipment and The Controversy
Just as le Tour as a whole has grown, the technology behind the race has grown along with it. What started as a race of simple road bikes has developed into a race to build stronger, lighter and faster bikes and equipment. Bike frames have been made of wood, steel and now sturdy but lightweight composite materials. Sturdier frames are used for climbing stages, and light and thin frames are ideal for flatter stages and time trials. Riders also don the infamous sweat-wicking, skintight riding jerseys throughout the race.
Helmets, although mandatory, have changed shape as well. Standard helmets for longer stages are specially crafted to offer minimal wind resistance, and special rain-drop-shaped speed helmets are used during shorter time trials to help the cyclists gain maximum speed. Along with these advances have come many scandals and controversy, including accusations of using bikes that are too light, which would contradict the rule outlining the minimum frame weight required for le Tour. Last year there were also accusations of Fabian Cancellera hiding a motor in the frame of his bike, and as a result all frames will be searched this year for motors before le Tour commences.
Who to Watch
As with any sporting event, there are some big names and rivalries to watch out for in this year’s Tour. First, the famous rivalry between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador. Armstrong is a familiar name, and he earned his fame by returning from a near-death battle with testicular cancer to win a record-breaking seven consecutive Tours from 1999 to 2005, after which he ‘retired’ for the time being. Soon after, in 2007, Contador finally took home his first yellow jersey after being a contender for years.
The rivalry began in 2009, when Armstrong announced his return to le Tour with his former trainer Johan Bruyneel. Doing so brought Armstrong to team Astana, Contador’s team, leaving two rivals forced to ride side by side. Having two contenders riding with the same team proved problematic throughout le Tour and divided the team. Although Contador walked away with the yellow jersey, Armstrong was in a close third.
As the months passed, the rivalry boiled over and now Armstrong, still under the guidance of Bruyneel, enters this year’s Tour under the name Team RadioShack, which includes other big threats such as Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer. There will no doubt be an intense competition between not only Contador and Armstrong throughout le Tour, but teams Astana and RadioShack as well. Additional contenders include Australia’s Cadel Evans, Italy’s veteran and 2010 Giro D’Italia (Tour of Italy) winner Ivan Basso, young rider classification dominator Andy Schleck as well as his brother Frank Schleck, as well as Russia’s Denis Menchov, who won last year’s Giro D’Italia. This does not even include contenders for the other aforementioned jerseys, as well as numerous unknown riders who always surface every year. This broad field of talent will once again make for an entertaining and memorable race that I know I won’t be able to turn away from.