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The Ultimate Guide to the Tour de France

June 20, 2017
The Ultimate Guide to the Tour de France

The Tour de France is the world’s largest annual sporting event comprising of almost 200 riders, covering approximately 3,500km and reaching a television audience of 3.5billion each year.

The flag was dropped to start the first edition of the tour at 3:16pm July 1, 1903 after an elaborate plan from local newspaper L’Auto to create a cycling race across France that would capture the hearts and imaginations of the French (and also increase their readership).

The Tour de France primarily navigates its way around France but surrounding countries Andorra, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland have all featured in the race route at some point.

The Tour de France is simply referred to as ‘The Tour’ or ‘Le Tour’ such is its legendary status and is the second of three Grand Tours (the Giro d'Italia the first and La Vuelta a Espana the third) on the WorldTour calendar. The Tour is the oldest, the most famous, and the most prestigious of the three tours. Winners of the Tour de France are presented with a yellow jersey referred to as the ‘Maillot Jaune’.

Stage locations change from year to year but the format remains consistent; a mixture of flat and mountainous stages, time trials in the form of individual and team, and since 1975 finishing on Paris' Champs – Elysees.

The Jerseys

tour de france guide how the race works green jersey

Each year the rider with the lowest accumulated time for the 21 stages wins the Tour de France and collects the Maillot Jaune. In addition to the overall winner, there are other sought-after classifications to reward riders for their efforts; the mountains (red polka dot jersey), points (green jersey) and young rider classifications (white jersey). There is also a team’s classification rewarding riders for high placed finishes and consistency, and a most combative rider award for the rider who might not have won the race but stood out.

General classification

tour de france guide how the race works yellow jersey

The general classification is the overall competition awarded to the rider with the lowest accumulated time across the 21 stages. The famous yellow jersey is the most coveted prize in professional cycling alongside a World Championship title and Olympic Gold Medal. The colour yellow was chosen to pay homage to the yellow paper L’Auto newspaper was printed on. Riders wearing the yellow jersey will often have custom details on their bike to not only show off their standing in the race but also showcase sponsors products associated with the race leader.

Previous winners of the Tour will have a yellow armband permanently on their cycling kit to signify their victory.

Mountains classification

tour de france guide how the race works polda dot jersey

The leader in the mountains classification is represented by a red polka dot jersey. Points in the classification are awarded for reaching the top of selected categorised climbs first or close to first. Points allocated to each climb differ depending on the difficulty of the climb. The most difficult climbs otherwise known as 'HC' or 'Hors Categorie' climbs (a French term meaning beyond categorization) are awarded the most amount of points. Category 1, 2, 3 and 4 climbs will have decreasing points allocated to them and fewer positions available to earn points.

Stages that finish on a summit will earn the riders double points and double prize money. As with all the other classifications, riders must finish the Tour in order to take home the title.

Points classification

tour de france guide how the race works sprint

The leader in the points classification is represented by a green jersey and is commonly known as the 'sprinters' jersey because more points are available on flat stages. Points are awarded at the finish line or at specific locations along each stage, commonly known as ‘intermediate sprints’. Points accumulate along the way and the rider with the most amount of points at the end of the Tour wins the classification.

Best Young Rider classification

tour de france guide how the race works white jersey

The Best Young Rider classification works exactly the same way as the general classification but only riders 25 years old or under are eligible to win. The rider 25 and under with the lowest accumulated time will wear a white jersey signifying their lead in the classification. Amazingly, four riders have been able to do the double and win the best young rider and the general classification in the same year: Laurent Fignon, Jan Ulrich, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.

Teams classification

tour de france guide how the race works team classification

The Teams Classification is won by the team with the lowest accumulated time, a result of adding the times of the three best cyclists per team on each stage. The team leading the classification will wear yellow numbers instead of the traditional white numbers.

Most combative rider

tour de france guide how the race works most combative

The most combative rider is awarded by a panel of judges to a rider that has stood out on the stage. A rider might win the award because they were in the breakaway all day, was the last rider to attack or did something else notable during the stage. Michael Matthews famously won the most combative jersey on stage five of the 2015 Tour after finishing the stage despite two broken ribs he suffered as a result of a crash on stage 3. The most combative rider from the stage will wear a red number the following stage.

An overall winner is awarded at the end of the tour, decided by the panel of judges.

Note: If a rider is leading in two or more classifications they will wear the most predominant jersey with second or third place rider in the other category wearing that jersey. For example, if a rider was leading the general classification and mountain classification, they would wear the yellow jersey and the second placed rider in the mountains classification would wear the red polka dot jersey.

The Tour by the numbers

tour de france guide how the race works sprint

The modern Tour is made up of 22 teams, each with nine riders, for a total of 198 riders. Each year 3.5billion people tune in to watch the Tour over the 21 stages via 188 broadcast countries and 121 different channels. The coverage comprises of almost 5,000 hours of content which grows every year. On top of the enormous television audience, over 12 million spectators are expected to line the route.

The closest ever winning margin of the Tour was by Greg LeMond over Laurent Fignon in 1989 by a mere 8 seconds! Contrastingly, the largest winning margin set back in 1903 between Maurice Garin and Lucien Pothier was 2hr 49min 45seconds.

The total prize pool for the 2016 Tour de France is a whopping €2.03 million. The winner will receive €450,000 while every rider that participates in the Tour will at least go home with €400 in addition to their salaries.

The fastest ever average speed for a stage of the Tour is 50.4kph, Mario Cipollini taking the honours that day. As if that wasn't fast enough, the fastest ever average speed for an individual time-trial at the Tour is 55.4kph, Australian Rohan Dennis achieving the record on stage 1 in 2015.

Mark Cavendish holds the record for the most amount of stage wins (not including time trials) at 30, while Eddy Merckx holds the most amount of total stage wins with 34 (16 of them time trials). Thanks to his remarkable winning record Eddy Merckx has worn the leader's yellow jersey for 96 stages of the Tour, the most of any rider in history.

39.64kph was the average speed on the 2015 Tour, which is over 1kph slower than the fastest ever Tour average speed. That record is held by Oscar Pereiro who averaged 40.79kph in 2006.

Little known facts

tour de france guide how the race works climbing

  • The first Tour de France in 1903 was won at an average speed of 25.68 km/h and the longest stage that year was 471km.

  • The yellow jersey only became part of the Tour de France in 1919.

  • If any riders are involved in a crash within the final 3km of a stage, they will all be given the same finishing time. This rule came into place to improve the safety of stage finishers.

  • In 1905, stages of the Tour were changed to take place within daylight hours to prevent the rampant cheating and bullying of riders. Even in the early days, the event was so prestigious riders were cheating to epic proportions in order to win the race. Some riders were even forcefully removed from their bikes and beaten by rival fans.

  • The Lantern Rouge is the name given to the last place rider of the Tour. The name was adopted from the term ‘red lantern’, in reference to the red light on the back of a vehicle.

  • Riders these days receive unprecedented support through fellow riders, team soigneurs, and event organisers, but spare a thought for riders pre-1930 who had to finish the tour on the bike they started with and perform all their own maintenance and repairs.

  • The ‘cannibal’ nickname has never been more appropriate for Eddy Merckx then in 1969 when he won the King of Mountains, Most Combative award, Points Competition and the General Classification.

  • The riders duties are not over once they cross the finish line in Paris. Post Tour de France riders attend criterium races in the Netherlands and Belgium where thousand of fans turn out to see them up close. Riders are well paid for their attendance and look forward to a more relaxed form of racing following a hectic three weeks at the Tour.

  • Four riders stand above everyone else with five Tour de France victories: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. Lance Armstrong held the record for the most tour victories with 7 before being stripped of all his titles following a lifetime ban for doping.

  • The longest Tour in history was 5,745km in 1926.

The 2017 edition

tour de france guide how the race works mountain

The 2017 Tour de France starts on Saturday, July 1 in Düsseldorf with a 14km individual time trial. The traditional Champs - Elysees finish will take place on Sunday, July 23.

The 104th edition of the Tour will cover 3,540km over 21 stages consisting of nine flat stages, five hilly stages, five mountain stages (La Planche des Belles Filles, Peyragudes, Izoard), two individual time trials and two rest days. The route will cross over into three other countries: Germany, Belgium, and Luxemburg.

Time trials will be influential in deciding the general classification winner, 36.5km in total split into 14km on stage 1 and 22.5km on stage 20.

Time bonus seconds are back up for grabs. Time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds allocated for the first three finishers of each 'normal' stage. A new point scale for the Points classification will also be in place with more emphasis placed on winning a stage.

Defending champion Chris Froome will be back to try and win a fourth Tour de France title, but he will have strong competition from Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana, Fabio Aru, Richie Porte, and possibly even his own Sky teammate Geraint Thomas.

In 2016, Rafal Majka won the mountains classification, Peter Sagan again won the Points classification (making in five in a row), in addition to winning the 'Super Combative' award, Adam Yates won the Best Young Rider's classification, and thanks largely to Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, Movistar took home the Teams classification.

Hero image supplied by Cor Vos.


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