A beginner's guide to the Tour de France
There's bike races and there's the Tour de France. The world’s greatest cycle race is approximately 3600 km long and runs across France and its neighbours. This year, the itinerary is taking riders from Rotterdam to Paris, via the Alps and Pyrenees - the scenic route. It lasts three weeks and will finish in Paris on 25th July. 22 teams and 219 riders started it on 3rd July. How many will finish?
A bit of history
"Le Tour" as they call it in France was first organised in 1903 by the newly formed newspaper, L'Auto (now l'Equipe). The race started in Paris and stopped off in Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and Nantes before returning to Paris. There were no mountains and no difficult stages. Between 60 and 80 entrants were attracted by an overall winner's prize of 12,000 francs and a "day" prize of 3,000.
Cheating was such that the second race was almost the last with riders being beaten up by rival fans. The stages were so long that participants were required to race at night. The third race in 1905 had 11 stages rather than 6 and was held during the day to make cheating more obvious. By then though, the race had captured the public's imagination. L'Auto's circulation trebled and the rest, as they say, is history.
The greatest of recent/all riders is Lance Armstrong, a household name almost across the world for having beaten off cancer to win the race 7 times. He has never been popular in France though because, to put it quite bluntly, there have always been rumours that he was cheating. Or may be it's just because he's an American.
The last Frenchman to win it was Bernard Hinault (Le Blaireau or the Badger) who won 5 times between 1978 and 1985, as did Jacques Anquetil between 1957 and 1964. Belgium's Eddy Merckx and Spain's Miquel Indurain both won it 5 times in the 70s and 90s respectively.
Special mention should also be made of Raymond Poulidor, famous in France for being the greatest rider never to win the race and Tom Simpson. He won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1965 and in 1967, although he had never won a stage, felt he could make an impact on the Tour. In those days riders were limited to 2 litres of water and he died of dehydration going up the Mont Ventoux. Oh and the amphetamines probably didn't help.
Three types of stage
There are three types of stage, mountain, flat and time trials. The race starts with a prologue, increasingly not held in France, which is a time trial. British rider Chris Boardman had a spectacular crash when leading the first stage time trial in 1995 and was forced to withdraw through injury.
Flat stages are for those riders who can sustain extended effort on flat(ish) terrain and they often end in sprints. Although this year the itinerary took them along the route of the Paris-Roubaix race along 13 km of cobblestones. Ouch...There is a reason for it being called L'enter du Nord (Hell of the North).
Never mind the cobblestones though, the mountain stages look like hell. Those stages that have riders swanning around the Alps and the Pyrenees are won by specialists and all the flat riders group together with their teams in the middle of the peleton and wait for them to be over.
The most famous is the Col du Tourmalet where the climb starts at Luz Saint-Sauveur and continues for 18.3 km at 7.7%. After Barèges, there's a 9% slope that lasts for a kilometre. I went up there once in a coach that really struggled to get through the gears. There's an observatory at the top and it's a great view, not that the riders care, they have to go straight down again.
What do all those coloured jerseys mean?
We've all heard of the "maillot jaune" (yellow jersey). It's the overall race leader who has the fastest aggregate time. The rider with the maillot jaune at the end of the race is the winner, even if he's lost in the pack when they all cross the line on the Champs Elysées in Paris on the third Sunday. The maillot vert (green jersey) is awarded to the fastest sprinter and the maillot à pois rouges (the white jersey with red dots) is awarded to the King of the Mountains, the first rider to reach designated spots in the mountain stages.
The expression "lanterne rouge" (the red lantern) has now passed into common usage in French It is awarded to the rider that comes last. In the past there have been fights amongst cyclists to become last simply because no-one remembers the guy that comes second last.
What does it take to win it?
A cynic would say a lot of EPO and other performance enhancing drugs. The race has always had its share of doping allegations right back to 1903. The most (in)famous year was 1998. Willy Voet of the Festina team was arrested with EPO, growth hormones, testosterone and amphetamines in the boot of his car. Following police raids, the riders went on strike finishing one race at a snail's pace. Richard Virinque, Festina's King of the Mountains was caricatured on the French satire programme, Les Guignols de l'Info, as having taken the drugs "à l'insu de mon plein gré' (against my free will).
A non-cynic would say, apart from a lot of guts, determination and strength, a good team is required. The Tour de France is not a sport where individual riders win races, teams win them. They protect each other, support each other and then the team leader/star rider takes the glory.
Fancy a cycling holiday?
No-one is suggesting it would be a good idea to do that much cycling for a holiday. Although former England international footballer Geoff Thomas might disagree. Diagnosed with leukemia after his career was cut short by injury, he survived and cycled the entire route of the Tour de France in 2005 and then a second time in 2007. All in aid of cancer research.
For the less courageous and more sedate (although slightly sporty nevertheless), a wide variety of cycling holidays are available, and not just in France. And don't forget (shameless plug), travel insurance will cover any cuts and bruises if you fall off or repatriation if you have a really spectacular accident.