Understanding la Grande Boucle; Your guide to the Tour de France

By David Talley | Published Saturday, July 2, 2016

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Today marks the start of the 103rd Tour de France. While a bicycle race in Europe may seem like a far cry from relevant or exciting here in the United States (there are actually five North Americans competing, including one Texan), the following three weeks are essentially 21 days of Christmas in July for cycling fans everywhere.

David Talley

David Talley

I’ve always been terrible at explaining why this sport appeals to me. When writing about bicycles, I usually just say, “something clicked,” because it’s the easiest way to describe how I entered the sport. I just did. I liked it a lot, so I do it a lot. I ride bicycles because I’m pretty good at it and I get to leave behind any daily stress and just focus on making the wheels turn. I watch bike races because I see the competitors as gladiators in the sport I love and the nature of the race romanticizes cycling into a captivating three-week storyline of protagonists and antagonists.

While participating in the sport may not be for everyone, I’m convinced more of us would watch le Tour with the same rabid fervor I do (read waking up at 4 a.m. to stream Dutch television coverage of the race because many American stations don’t have live video) if they just knew more about the event, the competitors, the fans and the race’s utterly ridiculous past.

(As a side note, there are many, many more professional bike races all around the world, including two other three-week races. We’re just going to focus on this one.)

The tour is divided into 21 stages with two rest days spread out. All but two of this year’s stages are mass start, point-to-point-type races that vary in length from 146 to 237.5 kilometers. Yeah, everything is metric. In normal distances, that’s 90.7 to 147.6 miles. The other two days are time trials, where racers compete individually against the clock on a much shorter course. Placing is determined by a rider’s overall time, which is the accumulation of their time from the start to the completion of each stage, so these time trials and days with mountaintop finishes that separate the bunch are particularly important for winning the race. Riders will often end the Tour several hours down from the actual winner.

Because each stage is so long the riders stay in large packs, called pelotons, to share the work of riding in the front against the wind resistance generated by moving. Research shows a rider drafting behind others saves roughly 50 percent of his or her energy.

Riders make up teams – there are 22 in this year’s race. And each team comes in with a different goal. Some just want to win a stage, some want to win the whole thing. Some bring sprinters, who specialize in fast, flat finishes. Others have climbers or riders who target the time trials. Jerseys get awarded for best sprinter, mountain climber, current rider with the lowest time and rider under 23 with the current lowest time.

Cheating is probably why most people have recently become familiar with the sport. Thanks, Lance? But cheating in the Tour has been going on since the event’s inception. Lance Armstrong cheated by using a combination of human growth hormones, steroids and a scientific procedure called blood doping where doctors draw and re-inject blood from athletes strategically to maximize the amount of oxygen they get. However, it used to be way crazier. In the second edition of the Tour, Frenchman Hippolyte Acouturier used a rope pulled from a support car that he held in his teeth to cheat. He was caught.

That kind of brash behavior inspires big personalities on the road, which, in turn, inspire generations of fans who are happy to boo, cheer and run alongside their favorite and least favorite riders. It’s essentially like getting to run next to Adrian Peterson on the field, without getting tackled by security guards.

So turn on a race recap some time in the next three weeks, I promise it’ll be fun.

Should the moment strike you, the French verb to cheer on racers is “Allez, Allez!”

David Talley is a reporter for the Wise County Messenger.

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