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The beginners’ guide to the Tour de France

The USA’s Tejay Van Garderen rides as a supporter runs by him at last year’s Tour de France. (Pascal Guyo/AFP/Getty Images)

Don’t be surprised if you switch on the television sometime in the next three weeks and see nothing by masses of men in Spandex on bikes. You’re probably catching a glimpse of the Tour de France, which starts Saturday and runs through July 27. Don’t change the channel! Watching these athletes traverse the beautiful terrain of France, as well as England, Belgium and Spain, is far from dull.

First off, there’s the scenery. The cinematography of this event is truly breathtaking. And the race is cool too, as long as you know what to watch for. Let’s start at the beginning.


Obviously, you know it’s a bike race. But it’s not the type that happens in a single sitting. There are 21 stages that cover 2,277 miles of terrain in four countries this year (the route changes annually): England, Belgium, Spain and, of course, France. The stages are all a little different, but most fall into one of three categories: flat, individual time trial and mountain.


There are 198 riders spread among 22 teams. Yes, cycling is a team sport. Each team consists of nine individuals, including one leader and eight domestiques, the French term used to describe the supporting riders. These riders will do everything they can to ensure their leader wins the race. For example, they might ride in front of the leader to create a draft the leader can ride behind, thus saving him energy. The domestiques might also head off competition by surging ahead to set a faster pace in hopes that his opponents will tire. The reward for their hard work comes when the winner traditionally splits the prize money with his team.


Well, as noted. There’s a cash prize. This year, the overall winner is set to earn about $6oo,ooo, with an extra $30,000 per stage up for grabs to whoever can finish first on any particular day. That means, if a rider wins every stage and the entire TdF, the prize package would total around $1.23 million — though this never happens. In fact, sometimes the overall winner (known as the “general classification”) doesn’t win a single stage, but consistently finishes near the front.

Of course, pride and prestige is also on the line. This is where the different colored jerseys come into play, which can adorn the backs of several different people during the 21 stages. There are four of these jerseys.


Called the maillot jaune in French, or “Mellow Johnny” in American cycling slang, this color jersey indicates the current leader of the pack, which is measured in total time. Note: the rider wearing this jersey may not have won the most individual stages, but he has done the best cumulatively. If a rider is wearing this jersey at the end of the race, he is crowned the winner and gets the biggest cash prize.


Known as the maillot vert in French, the green jersey is worn by the rider with the highest number of sprint points, which riders earn for finishing first, second, and so on in each stage. The points awarded, however, vary depending on stage type. For example, flat stages give points to the top 25 riders. The first place finisher will get 35, while the 25th place finisher will get one. For medium mountain stages, only the Top 20 riders get points. The winner gets 25 and the 20th rider gets one. Riders can also get points in the high mountain stages, time trials and at predetermined intermediate contests sprinkled throughout the stages.


By far the coolest-looking jersey in the bunch, the white-and-red polka dot jersey, or maillot a pois rouges, as the French say, is awarded to the best climber, aka “The King of the Mountain.” Like the green jersey, this one also is awarded via a points system. Stretches of uphill climbs are designated into five categories based on difficulty. Riders who reach the top first get points, and the rider with the most climbing points at the end gets the polka dot jersey.


The maillot blanc is reserved for riders under 25 years old. It’s awarded via the same method as the yellow jersey.


That’s called the peloton. Cyclists ride close together to save energy. The bigger the group, the larger the draft, and the closer riders are to the center of it, the less they have to work. Of course, there are some drawbacks. If one person crashes, there’s potential that the whole group can go down.  


If you don’t watch for the feats of athleticism and strategy, you should at least watch for the spectators, who are notoriously nuts. Thousands of people line the roads hoping to catch a glimpse of the world’s most elite riders. But they also just want to party. Think of it like the world’s longest tailgate party. People dress up like weirdos, drink too much and often attempt to run along with the riders until the riders either gain speed or, more hilariously, push them away.

But it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes certain members of the crowd can get out of hand. In 2012, someone (Wile E. Coyote?) threw tacks on the road. That same year, a moron lit a few flares and ended up burning TdF winner Bradley Wiggins. Then, in what might be the grossest fan display, last year, someone sprayed Mark Cavendish with urine. Yeah. Nuts might be an understatement.

So, are you ready to watch the Tour de France?