What is this?
This is the Tour de France, the biggest annual sporting event in the world, 21 stages of the frantic circus of racing, drama and regional colour of the (mostly) French countryside. 22 teams and 198 riders will take centre stage, fighting amongst the spectacular scenery of the Alps, the Pyrnees, the Jura, the Massif Central and the Vosges in what many describe as a travelogue with a bit of sport thrown in.
At times the spectacle can be farcical and controversial - like when last year's race leader Chris Froome ran without his bike after a crash - but you can be guaranteed that it will always be captivating.
All the host towns and provinces the race passes through really get into the spirit of the race, with an estimated 12 million fans lining the roads as the riders traverse 3540 kilometres over three weeks of racing.
The aim of the game
Each of the 22 trade teams in the Tour de France has their own objectives going into the race, but the biggest prize is the Yellow Jersey - in French, the Maillot Jaune. It is awarded to the rider who has the least cumulative time over the 21 stages, with the clock stopping on their individual times each time they complete a stage.
It is almost always a climber that wins the Yellow Jersey, with the biggest potential for time gaps coming in the mountain stages where bigger riders struggle as the road tilts upwards. But the need to be an all-rounder- at least to some extent - is very important, with time-trials (individual efforts against the clock over shorter routes), descents and tricky cobbled roads all factors that have decided races in the past.
Another important ingredient to a rider winning the Maillot Jaune is the co-operation of his teammates. Cycling is one of the few sports where the sponsor's name is the team name for the duration of their endorsement. It's not based on nationality, but there will be a number of Australians competing on different teams in the race.
While cycling looks like an individual sport with one man on the podium receiving the plaudits and prizes, the team does all of the 'grunt' work to protect its leader and ensure he arrives at the decisive moments of the race with little energy expended.
Then it's the leader's job to jump clear of the other contenders for the Yellow Jersey, get to the finish as fast as possible and gain time on his rivals. Sounds simple enough, but the tactics of how that is accomplished are far from straight forward and why cycling is often described as 'Chess on wheels'.
What not to ask (a selection of questions to avoid if you don't want to reveal your ignorance)
What's the point of sitting in that big bunch there, why don't they go off by themselves?
Probably the biggest tactical consideration of cycling is drafting, being shielded from wind resistance by the riders in front, to give yourself an easier ride. You can save about 30% of your energy output sitting behind a good draft and then only come to the fore when it's at a critical stage in the race.
Why are those guys going off the front at the start of the race then? Isn't it too early to win, won't they get too tired in the wind?
Yes they will, and the vast majority of the time the early attackers, known as 'the break', won't win. They will accomplish a number of objectives with the seemingly suicidal move:
- For smaller teams it's simply valuable getting their sponsor's name on TV regularly
- There are smaller prizes available along the route, there are points along the course where the first rider over the line gets points for the King of the Mountains jersey (a snazzy red polkadot top) or the Sprint Jersey (a green jersey)
- The slim chances of a break staying away are quite frankly the best chance some of the lesser riders are going to have of winning a stage
Why did he attack there?
If there's one question that will out you as a novice, it's this one. There's always a reason for an attack, it's simply up for you to come up with the reason within the greater scheme of the race. Don't worry if you get it wrong, the professionals do as well.
Last year at the Tour de France, eventual race-winner Chris Froome fooled his rivals into thinking he was attacking for mountains points but it turned into a full-blooded effort which helped him gain time in the fight for the Yellow Jersey.
If rider X is so good, why won't he win Stage Y?
A trap lots of new-comers to the sport fall into is thinking there is just one type of 'good cyclist' who should excel all the time, similar to a lot of other sports, where the champion athletes are consistently winning at each race or event they attend. In the Tour de France, the essential elements of the sport change every day with the changes of scenery.
Cycling is set to a backdrop of frighteningly tall mountains, winding roads and tight, inner-city, chaotic sprint finishes. The type of athlete is takes to win each is very different, which is why you'll see a rider like German star Marcel Kittel, 86 kilograms, dominate in sprints, whilst Esteban Chaves, 54 kilograms, is only formidable when the road goes steeply uphill.
Your handy guide to the nomenclature of the cycling world.
Bidon - Water bottle, though can contain energy drink mixtures, soft drink, tea, etc.
Chute - Normally followed by an exclamation mark, denotes a crash has occurred.
Cross-wind - A cross-wind comes from the side and can split the peloton up if the wind is strong enough and the pace is on.
Domestique - One of the workers within the team who sacrifices his own chances for the benefits of his team leader. Super-domestiques are riders that are generally acknowledged to be good enough to be one of the top rider themselves. Duties involve getting bottles, protecting leaders, driving the peloton, giving up a wheel or even their bike to a team leader in need.
Drafting - Sitting behind another rider or riders to gain an aerodynamic advantage.
Echelon - The snake-like diagonal formation that riders adopt in the presence of strong cross-winds.
The Escapees - Normally refers to the group of early attackers.
Flamme Rouge - The banner with the red flag hanging from it denotes that there's one kilometre reamaining on the stage.
Full-gas - Also known as 'putting the hammer down', or 'putting it in the gutter' depending on the situation. Basically means that someone has just decided to go as fast as possible and everyone else needs to match the pace or be dropped.
Grupetto - Also known as the 'autobus', a group that forms off the back of the race in the mountains, normally comprises the sprinters and larger riders who don't excel on the climbs.
Head-wind - When the wind blows directly into the riders faces. Slows the race down and makes it even more important to draft.
Leadout - The train of riders for a team that has a specialist sprinter. The train lines up with their chosen sprinter at the rear and works hard to set him up perfectly in the final kilometres of the race.
Maillot jaune - The yellow jersey
Maillot vert - The green jersey
Maillot a pais rouges - The polkadot jersey
Musette bag - A small shoulder bag that contains food and bidons, normally picked up from the feed zones.
Peloton - The main bunch of riders
Puncheur - A type of rider that excels at explosive efforts who can attack late into a race and stay away until the finish.
Rolling turns - Also known as 'swapping off', it refers to the common practice of riding on the front for a while then letting someone else come through as you slot back in further down the line and work back up to the front to do more work. Refusing to roll turns in a breakaway can lead to some heated words being exchanged.
Rouleur - A stronger, larger type of rider that excels on flatter courses that require outputs of sustained power.
Sticky bidon - The practice of giving a rider a slight pull from a team car as a mechanic or soigneur within the car holds a bidon and the rider holds on, giving him a brief rest. Tolerated to a certain degree, too sticky a bidon is regarded as cheating.
Tail-wind - When the wind comes from behind the cyclists. Has the effect of speeding up the race, making it slightly more likely that attackers will succeed and harder for those trying to hang on in the peloton.
You can watch every stage LIVE and exclusive on SBS. Find out more about how to watch.