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  • Writer's pictureJamie

The Tour de France explained. Be confused no more.

The Tour de France can be confusing to watch, but it's actually pretty simple.

It's a race made up of 21 separate races, raced by individuals racing in teams, for four different jerseys, counting both points and time, with a Best Young Rider category that spans half the field, a King of the Mountains category rarely won by the outright best climber, and a Points (sprints) category not always won by the fastest sprinter.

There are 23 teams and 184 riders, most of whom are not trying to win. Riders who are trying to win a jersey will generally ride to gain time on rivals but will sometimes deliberately lose time to pursue their goal.

Everyone wants the yellow jersey and wearing it is a life-changing honour, except when they don't and they contrive to lose it again so that another rider has the burden of wearing it.

Each separate race in the race is a race to the finish line but very often the teams who most want to win the main race will give a group of riders a headstart of many minutes early in each race knowing that they will have to catch them again later in that race if they really want to win the big race. Equally, many riders are extremely keen to get in the group given a headstart in that day's race in the hope that they might win that race, all the time knowing that they will be hunted like fugitives and that their best chance of winning the race is to avoid having a headstart.

It's one of the world's hardest sporting events raced by racers at the very pinnacle of their sport and simply being selected to race the race can be a career crowning moment but for the majority of several of the races that make up the race, non-racer amateurs could keep up and do so easily.

Fans can watch roadside for free and get really close to the action but often so close on mountains that they prevent any action, and sometimes so close that they cause crashes, ruining the chances of their heroes and even causing serious injury to tens of riders at a time.

It's called the Tour de France but it frequently starts in different countries. Its nickname is Le Grand Boucle, meaning The Big Lap, but it hasn't been a whole lap of France for nearly 100 years.

The race is owned and run by ASO but to rules set by cycling governing body the UCI, which is primarily concerned with safety and has introduced new rules to ban things that have never caused crashes while refusing to adopt rider suggestions to solve things that regularly cause crashes. There is a minimum bike weight of 6.8kg for safety, which is heavier than some of the high-end bikes owned by fans.

Many crashes are caused by the racers racing the races in a very tight bunch with just a few centimetres between them, where one small nudge can cause 50 or more racers to crash at high speed. To avoid being caught behind one of these crashes, and potentially losing some time, or some points, or particularly a jersey that they wanted to keep at that part of the big race, the racers will race each other aggressively, diving for every small gap, skimming the grass or the fans, all trying to be at the front at the same time, often on narrow and twisty roads. They do this to be safe.

Although the big race has 21 separate races, the overall winner is declared after 20. He still has to finish the 21st race to actually be the winner. The 21st race begins with an hour of riding very slowly, the winner of every jersey posing for photos and sipping champagne in celebration of the win they haven't won yet. Then they race flat out around the Champs-Elyésées in near dark on slippery cobbles and if they crash out then they don't win after all because the race wasn't actually over.

In this last race of the big race, one of the most hotly contested prizes is for last place overall, which carries a special honour that can prove far more lucrative than most of the places ahead.

No, there is still no women's Tour de France until next year.

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You haven't mentioned the races where they go flat out for a short amount of time in crazy helmets on different bikes for a bit though. Just to change it up a bit.


Good shout. That did cross my mind. Along with everyone getting the same time in a group unless there's a gap ahead that you couldn't see, and never mind the 'unwritten rules'. Might need a pt2!


William Billson
William Billson

At least there’s one person who fully understands it.

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