Beginner's guide to the Tour de France

Feel like going on a three-week holiday without leaving the house but don't know your vache from your maillot jaune? Want to break into the work Zoom conversation about the lycra-clad lads cycling around France? We've got you covered with this beginner's guide to the Tour de France.

WATCH the 2021 Tour de France LIVE and EXCLUSIVE on SBS from June 26.


What is the Tour de France?

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 France. 22 teams and 176 riders take centre stage, fighting amongst the spectacular scenery of the Alps, the Pyrenees and the French countryside in what many describe as a travelogue with a bit of sport thrown in.  

It's an event where you should always expect the unexpected - like when last year's overall leader looked set to take the win after being on top for almost the entire race until he was beaten in the penultimate stage! 

All the host towns and provinces the race passes through get into the spirit of the race with fans and field art lining the roads and bringing the local countryside to life.

Normally an estimated 12 million fans cheer the riders as they traverse 3,417 kilometres over three weeks of racing... of course, it will be a little different this year, but we're sure there will plenty of interesting things to look at besides the cycling.

The aim of the game

The biggest prize is the Yellow Jersey - in French, le Maillot Jaune. It is awarded to the rider who has the least cumulative time over the 21 stages, one stage per day, with the clock stopping on their individual times each time they complete a stage. The leader of the race is updated after each stage and it's not uncommon to have five or more different leaders throughout the three weeks of racing.

It is almost always a climber (the particularly skinny ones) 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's domestiques (French for servants) do all of the 'grunt' work to protect their 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'. 

The 22 teams in the Tour de France have their own objectives going into the race, each team is owned as a commercial interest and rather than operating as national teams, riders of all nationalities mix within squads.

Squads are still registered to a country and often there will be a tendency to a particular nationality within teams based on sponsorship. Australian-registered squad Team BikeExchange, for example, has traditionally featured Aussies in large numbers and will this year feature two Australians in leadership roles, but likely contain a good representation of other nationalities.

As commercial businesses, their main job is to show their sponsors in the best light and teams try to do that by winning stages and wearing the yellow jersey. Failing that, there are other jerseys to fight for; the green sprinter's jersey is the next most prestigious, then the red polka dot jersey for the king of the mountains and the white jersey for the best young (under 25-years-old) rider.

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 per cent of your energy output sitting behind a good draft and then only come to the fore when it is 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 these early attackers, known as 'the break', won't win. However, 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 spots along the course where the first rider over the line gets points for the King of the Mountains jersey (a snazzy red polka dot top) or the Sprint Jersey (a less spiffy 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.

At times the Movistar professional team seems to be nearly attacking at odds with the chances of other riders within the team!

If rider X is so good, why won't he win Stage Y?

A trap that lots of newcomers 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 in scenery.

Cycling is set to a backdrop of frighteningly tall mountains, wide farmland vistas and inner-city sprint finishes. The type of athlete it takes to win each is very different, which is why you'll see a rider like sprinter Max Walscheid, 92 kilograms, dominate in flat races, whilst Esteban Chaves, 55 kilograms, is only formidable when the road goes steeply uphill.

Where is the women's Tour de France?

The women's Tour de France will be run next year as the Tour de France Femmes, a race that will cross over with the men's event and then be run as a separate race.

At the Tour this year, the top women in the world with race La Course, a one-day event run alongside the men's race. This year La Course will be run from Brest to Landerneau on June 26.

During the Tour de France, the 'women's Grand Tour', the Giro Rosa, is also on and you can catch highlights daily on SBS from July 3-12.

What's the best way to watch?

It's up to you! Dip a toe in the water by catching up with the Tour de France morning update show, or pedal along on a home trainer while the cyclists are going hammer and tongs up a climb (it's good for exercise motivation!). Nothing compares to the live event however, and there's little better in the world than curling up on the couch with a beverage and a healthy (or unhealthy) selection of tour snacks for a few hours as the clock passes midnight. 

The hashtags on Twitter are #sbstdf and #couchpeloton, and regularly feature irreverent takes and fun reactions on what's happening over in France. It's a welcoming community and it gets especially excited for the Tour de France!

Tour de France broadcast image explainer
The key to the numbers and symbols you'll see during a cycling broadcast Source: SBS

Wondering how you're going to survive three weeks of endurance on the couch? Here are some tips from the #couchpeloton (a group of cycling fans who hang out on Twitter using the hashtag #couchpeloton) to help you make it through.


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.

Couchpeloton - a group of cycling fans in Australia and other parts of the world who gather together on Twitter with the hashtag #couchpeloton to enjoy all things bike racing but also have fun during the wee hours of the morning watching the Tour de France.

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 a sub-class of these that are generally acknowledged to be good enough to be one of the leaders 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 a group of attackers. Also called 'the break' or 'the breakaway'.

Flamme Rouge - The banner with the red flag hanging from it denotes that there's one kilometre remaining on the stage.

Full-gas - Also known as 'dropping the hammer', or 'putting it in the gutter' depending on the situation. Basically means that someone has just decided to set a fast tempo 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.

Sprinter - Normally a more muscular rider, capable of putting out the immense amounts of power that it takes to win a flat finish from within the peloton.

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.  

 starting from June 26, with full stages available on the SKODA Tour Tracker, SBS HD and streaming service . The  is the hub for highlights, opinion and analysis throughout the Tour.

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12 min read
Published 8 June 2021 at 12:34pm
By Jamie Finch-Penninger