From July 6 to July 28, the world’s best road cyclists will compete for one of the most highly regarded crowns in sport. Millions around the world will be watching, but for new fans unfamiliar with the nuances of the Tour de France, certain aspects may be confusing. For those wanting to fully appreciate Le Tour, understanding the following race features and terminology will help. (Le Tour is French for The Tour.)
The peloton is the term for the main pack of riders. At times consisting of every rider in the race, the peloton can be a dangerous place given the possibility of collisions, but decreased wind resistance means it can travel more swiftly than a single rider or small group. It is also the sort of riding formation that would give cyclist-hating motorists nightmares.
The laws of aerodynamics mean cyclists riding in succession travel faster than a single rider on their own. Riders subsequently ‘draft’ behind each other, sharing duties riding at the front of the pack. Occasionally riders refuse to ride up the front which is considered poor racing etiquette, as is completing the race in a car as seen here.
Domestiques are riders whose job it is to look after the star riders of their team. They supply them with food and drink, protect them from rivals and get them into good positions for sprints and climbs. It is also their job to look happy when their teammates win stages due to their hard work.
A breakaway consists of one or more riders splitting from the peloton in an attempt to get out front and compete for a stage win. A breakaway is a risk due to the energy it requires, but for those who can outlast the chasing group, glory awaits. (They almost invariably get chased down, but being at the front means they get to be on TV, for a while at least.)
Mountain cycling is one of the most gruelling aspects of the tour, with the difficulty of the ascents graded by categories ranging from 1 to 4, with 4 being the easier end of the scale. There are also occasional climbs known as Hors categorie which are so steep and arduous they fall outside the regular ranking system. It is often the climbing stages that determine the race winner due to the time that can be gained and lost and the fact the French Alps and Pyrenees Mountains are notoriously hilly.
The coloured jerseys
Though it may seem like bullying to make someone wear a jersey covered in polka dots, it is considered a high honour in the Tour de France. The polka dot jersey is worn by the Tour’s leading mountain rider, while the best sprinter wears green, the best young rider wears white and the overall leader wears the yellow jersey, known as the maillot jaune. Everyone else wears standard music festival or wedding night attire consisting of a skin-tight costume and a helmet.
… are they drinking champagne!?
Drinking champagne in the midst of a race may seem unprofessional but it is tradition to take it easy on the final stage, with the overall winner usually sewn up by that point. If a rider is seen drinking champagne on an earlier stage, there is a good chance they are not following team orders and potentially have a serious problem.
Lining the roads in a fashion that appears to be dangerous because it genuinely is, fans contribute significantly to the spectacle of the race, wearing costumes, cheering and running alongside the riders. On occasion over-enthusiastic fans have caused serious accidents, but this is all part of the cultural experience.
Viewers can tune in live from July 6 to watch the drama of the Tour de France, featuring 22 teams of 8 world-class cyclists. If new to the event, be sure to use your newfound knowledge, keeping an eye out for the bold tactics of a breakaway, the power and endurance of the climbers, and the daring skill of the sprinters. And if someone dressed as a clown starts running alongside the riders screaming before being tackled to the ground by security, rest assured it is all part of the show.
The action of the Tour de France starts on Saturday, July 6 at 8:30pm on SBS. Catch the daily highlights each morning from Sunday, 7 July at 6:20am on SBS.