• Didi Senft is arguably the Tour de France's most fanatical observer. He's always dressed as a devil, and you'll see him throughout the race on SBS (DPA)Source: DPA
Every year, millions of people around the world tune in to the Tour de France, the world’s biggest bike race. But what makes it so attractive?
By
Toby Forage

18 Jun 2015 - 9:31 AM  UPDATED 26 Jun 2015 - 6:55 PM

WATCH THE TOUR ON SBS
More Tour de France than ever before this July on SBS
SBS brings Australian audiences more Tour de France than ever before, with over 100 extra hours of the world’s most iconic cycling race.

It’s no exaggeration to declare the event epic in scale, so to help those of you who are new to the race, or indeed new to the sport of cycling, here are some key facts to help enhance your enjoyment of SBS’s LIVE and exclusive coverage.

You might also end up being an instant expert on the race, which is handy, because it’s all anyone will be talking for the next month or so.

And make sure you check out our Tour 101 videos page for more explainers on how the whole race works.

Why should I watch?

If you don’t, you’re missing out. Roughly half the world’s population, if race organisers are to be believed, watch the Tour. It is enormously popular, and across nearly 190 nations, the cumulative audience is probably very close to 3.5 billion, making the Tour de France the world’s biggest annual sporting event.

 

Aside from the billions of people that tune in to watch on TV, around 12 million more line the route to see the race up close and personal. Around three million attended the opening three stages alone in 2014, which rolled through parts of the UK.

Potted history

Le Tour, as lovers of the race refer to it, was pioneered by a French journalist, way back at the beginning of the 20th Century. Géo Lefèvre, who wrote for L’Auto magazine, formulated the somewhat insane plan to ride across almost 2500km of the country. Perhaps as a dare, his editor, Henri Desgrange, allowed it to go ahead, and Le Tour was born on 1 July 1903.

Sixty riders took part in that inaugural race, which was completed in just six stages, a far cry from today’s 21 stages. One of those stages saw the riders grind out a distance of 471km in one outing, which took them from Nantes to Paris. Not all the riders made it. Of the 60 that started pedalling, just 21 of them completed the race.

The sheer brutality of those early races captured the imagination of the French public, and before long Le Tour had become an integral part of the nation’s fabric and culture, ballooning into the huge spectacle it is today.

Dissecting distance

This year’s Tour de France route will cover 3360km. To put that into context, imagine riding your bike from Melbourne to Cape York in less than three weeks on the road. Alternatively, how about a trip between Sydney and Kalgoorlie? No problem, right?

 

The race is divided into 21 stages (with two rest days), but barring a couple of time trials, none of them are short. The longest will be Stage 4, a 223.5km slog from Seraing in Belgium to Cambrais, which sits just inside its border with France. That’s about the same as Sydney to Nowra. No sweat.

Cycling is a team sport?

Watching a guy slog his guts out, only to peel away and to allow a “team-mate” to take the glory at the finish line, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to those new to the sport. But it’s really no different from other team sports.

Take football, for example. The individual glory might go to goalscorers, but for the rest of the team, victory is equally sweet. And sometimes the guy that doesn’t win the overall race is still a hero because of his contribution. Australian Richie Porte, for example, was instrumental in getting his team leader, Chris Froome, across the line first in 2013. Porte was widely recognised as the guy that delivered that race to Great Britain’s Froome, and the glory to his team, Sky. Plus, you can support a team. Australia has one, called Orica GreenEDGE.


 

The jerseys

Yellow: Worn by the overall leader and winner of the Tour de France

Green: Worn by the overall leader and winner of the points classification. Riders can earn points by reaching certain checkpoints within the stages first. This usually involves a quick sprint, so it’s usually the more glamorous riders who vie for the title. The finish line counts, and is also worth points, so you’ll see these guys win multiple stages during a Tour.

 

Polka Dot: The "king of the mountains" jersey, like the green jersey, is earned by crossing checkpoints throughout the race. The difference is these checkpoints are set at the peak of the race’s tough climbs.

White: This is worn by the best young rider of the Tour. Riders under the age of 25 vie for this one. Whichever one of them finishes highest in the overall standings is declared the best young rider.

The speed

The average speed of a rider at the Tour de France is around 42km/h. That’s pretty fast. During a sprint finish, riders can reach up to 70-80km/h, and in the mountains, some of the descents will push towards the 100km/h mark.

Falling on a hard road at those speeds does damage to the human body, but cyclists are among some of the toughest athletes on the planet. It’s not unusual to see riders continue the race with broken bones, whether it’s a fractured wrist, broken finger, crack rib or collarbone, it takes an awful lot to keep a professional cyclist out of the saddle.

The tactics

Many compare the sport to chess on bikes. Manoeuvring is key, whether as an individual or in groups, and while most tactics are set ahead of a stage’s start, team managers watch closely from their following cars to make snap decisions on how the team should ride to achieve the best possible result.

Like other professional sports, cycling teams spend big to get the balance absolutely right, particularly for the Tour de France. The value of just one single stage victory in that race is immeasurable from a revenue perspective. Sponsors love to see their logos cross the line first, so teams make every effort to win at least one stage somewhere along the route.

Teams have nine riders each. You’ll get times in the race when members of a team will “protect” their leader. Whether it’s during a windy flat stage to block the breeze, or shooting up the road to drag back a threatening breakaway by a rival team, the make-up of the team is crucial, and some teams do it better than others.

The money

The total prize pool for the Tour de France is around $3 million. The overall winner takes about $660,000 from the pot. The prize money is scaled down from there depending on your final position, so second place earns roughly $300,000, third grabs about $150,000, and so on.

A stage win can earn you around $33, 682, but compared to other sports with huge global audiences – the Superbowl, world football, tennis – cyclists could probably argue that they’re underpaid.

Win the green jersey, and you’re about $36,500 better off, likewise for the polka dots, and the best young rider grabs $29,200, which is handy when you consider most young riders are paid around the same figure for their first professional contracts.

Who’s going to win?

This year’s race promises to be a classic battle, if the lead-up has been anything to go by. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) is in prime form again, two-time champion Chris Froome (Great Britain) is peaking nicely as well. Former winner Alberto Contador (Spain) is also coming in off the back of some excellent racing, while Nairo Quintana, Colombia’s little climbing machine, can also do some serious damage. Outsiders include American Tejay Van Garderen, who is the principle man at Cadel Evans’s old team BMC, and France’s own favourite Thibaut Pinot.

 

What about the Aussies?

An Australian victory in the overall classification is very unlikely, but there are still opportunities for stage wins and other glory for the men from Down Under. Richie Porte will get a lot of air time as he tries again to assist a win for Froome, and the Orica GreenEDGE team, which is Australian owned, always hits the headlines for some reason. There is some Aussie glamour in Michael Matthews, who is nicknamed “Bling” for a reason, and the ever reliable Simon Gerrans could cause an upset here and there. Other Aussie hopefuls that might hit the heights here and there include Rohan Dennis, Mick Rogers and Mark Renshaw, who is one of the fastest things on two wheels, so look out for them all throughout the race.

And the Aussie fans are always classy along the course. Keep an eye out for them. They're not easy to miss.

How to stay across it all

This part is simple. SBS is the exclusive broadcaster of the Tour de France in Australia and will show all 21 stages live and exclusive across SBS ONE, SBS HD and online via the Škoda Tour Tracker both on this website and via our award-winning mobile apps.

You simply can't miss a thing.

We're also posting regularly across social media through both Facebook and Twitter, so make sure you follow us to stay right up to date, and enjoy all the thrills and spills of this most spectacular sporting event.