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  • Shauna Rush


Updated: Oct 23, 2020

This article was originally published on June 12th, 2019.

In its most basic form, the Tour de France is a simple athletic contest. The cyclist who completes a strenuous and often perilous course of more than 2,000 miles in the lowest total time wins.

However, the event is so much more. Steeped in history, tradition, and racing lore, the Tour defines endurance and global sportsmanship. Unlike professional sports played in stadiums and arenas filled with fans who’ve paid for tickets, the Tour stands alone in the sports world. Its arena extends past countries’ borders, and for fans, it’s the best bargain in sports, because it’s free.

For riders, it’s a job with an equally simple equation. While progressing along the course like chess pieces on wheels, riders face the limits of endurance. They battle inclement weather and attempt to outwit and outrace each other while using the same strategy, conserve energy as much as possible for the times when it’s needed most.


Henri Desgrange is often credited as the father of the Tour de France. However, the idea was actually from one of his younger L'Auto journalists Géo Lefèvre.

Lefèvre is said to have blurted out the idea after feeling under pressure to say something at a crisis meeting held, in a bid to improve poor sales at the L'Auto newspaper. Lefèvre recalled Desgrange's response as "If I understand you right, petit Géo, what you are proposing is a Tour de France."

This idea would be the first of its kind, for the sport of cycling, with motorsports starting something similar in 1899, with the Tour de France Automobile.

After Desgrange managed to get support from the newspaper's financial manager, Victor Goddet, who was said to have pointed at the safe and invited Desgrange to take all he needed. L'Auto announced the race on January 19, 1903, which would take place from July 1st to the 19th.

The first race attracted 60 competitors, who had to pay an entry fee towards the 20,000 francs prize pot. Each day's winner would have the ability to win six times what most workers earned in a year. 6,075 francs of the prize pot would end up being handed out to winner Maurice Garin.

Garin would finish 3 hours ahead of second-place Lucien Pothier and almost 65 hours ahead of the 21st and last competitor to complete the tour, Arsène Millocheau.

Despite the Tour de France not being featured on L'Auto's front page on the race's opening day, the race was a success for the newspaper as they saw sales double.

Garin would be triumphant the following year, only to then be disqualified for cheating, including the use of cars and trains to reach the finishing point.

The tour format would evolve its format over the next few years. Adding first mountain stages, through the Pyrenees; then the introduction of professional teams; and the development of the point system through multiple stages.

The grueling demands of the race is part of its appeal to fans and riders alike. Desgrange stated that his ideal race would be so hard that only one rider would make it to Paris

What started as nothing more than a publicity stunt for L'Auto, has become the most prestigious cycling event in the world today. The three-week-long event makes it one of the greatest athletic tests in all of sport.

Modern Race

The Tour de France in its modern form is the world’s largest annual sporting event.

21 stages take place over the course of 23 days, including two rest days, with a course that covers approximately 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles). Each year 3.5 billion people worldwide tune in to watch the event, while over 12 million people take to the street to witness the riders.

The race is made up of 22 teams of 8 riders, creating a field of 176 competitors. This includes all eighteen UCI WorldTour teams, the top-flight of professional cycling, as well as three invited wildcard teams.

While the route of the race changes each year, the format remains the same. The Tour de France is split into 21 stages: Nine flat stages, three hilly stages, seven mountain stages (including five summit finishes), and two individual time trials

One stage is performed every day, covering roughly 225 kilometers, and takes about five and a half hours to complete. Each stage has a winner, and the rider that completes the most stages in the lowest cumulative time goes onto win the overall title.


There are some sports you can switch on and grasp what's going on within a few seconds. They have scored more goals, she has more points, he is in front of the other athlete, and so forth.

This ease of understanding is unfortunately not true for the Tour de France. The tour comprises of five competitions in total: the general classification, points classification, mountains classification, best young rider, and team classification. The rider that completes all the stages in the shortest time, after time bonuses have been accounted for, over the 23 days comes top of the general classification and wins the Tour.

The mountains classification is won on points, which are awarded at the summit of each categorized climb, and on mountain-top finishes. In the points classification competition, riders are rewarded for at the intermediate sprint points during races.

More points are available, therefore, on flat stages, with fewer up for grabs on mountain stages. The general, young rider, and team classifications are won by those with the quickest time. More on that later.

Winning a Tour de France stage is the career highlight for many cyclists. Every day, one rider is victorious, and he climbs onto the finish podium after a stage win and hears fans’ cheers, and receives various accolades.

However, a rider’s individual triumph, at least to some degree, is the result of selfless teammates. It’s rare for a cyclist to win a stage without acknowledging teammates who’ve put him in a position to ride to a triumph.

The rider with the lowest aggregate time after all the segments becomes the winner and is awarded the esteemed yellow jersey. The Tour de France prize pool is worth over $2.2 million.

The Jerseys

In the Tour de France, the colored jerseys are one thing that stands out and is something that often needs to be explained. Cyclists from the same team wear the same colored jersey, but there are a few special jerseys.

The yellow jersey (maillot jaune): the most important one, as we all know. The famous yellow jersey is worn by the rider at the top of the general classification, meaning they have completed the stages so far in the least time. Wearing yellow in the Tour for just a day or two can be the highlight of a cyclist's career. In the end, it goes to the winner.

Contenders for the yellow jersey don't worry about winning every stage, or maybe even any. As long as the riders in front of them on the road are a good way behind them in the overall standings, they will concentrate on where the other yellow jersey contenders are relative to them.

The green jersey (maillot vert): goes to the rider with the most points overall, leader of the points classification. Points are given for the first 15 riders across an intermediate sprint line about halfway through the race and the finish line. All-rounder Peter Sagan has won the green jersey a record-equalling six times.

The polka-dot jersey (maillot à pois): a prestigious garment, this is also known as the King of the Mountains jersey. The red polka dots go to the rider who has won the most points in the mountain sections of stages by reaching the top of categorized climbs first. Like the green jersey system, but specifically for the climbers.

The white jersey (maillot blanc): a junior yellow, basically. Given to the rider under 26 in January of that year with the lowest overall time.


The Tour de France functions as a team sport, with all eight of the team's riders playing their part. Reaping the benefits of synergy, teams work as units, and each rider has varying responsibilities. As riders make their way around France and into neighboring countries, teams that use sound racing strategies tend to have the most success, for the group and for the team captain.

Each team of eight riders will have a team captain, with the remaining riders, known as domestiques, literally 'servant' riders, responsible for supporting him or them in doing what they do best, whether that's getting stage wins, accumulating points, or going for the overall win.

During the main body of the race, riders are very strategic and tend to cycle in the main group called a peloton, it allows the team captains to hide behind the rest of their teammates to preserve energy before the teams implement their strategy to give the team captain the best opportunity of victory in the stage.

Each team of eight riders will have a leader or protected riders, with the remaining riders – known as domestiques, literally 'servant' riders – responsible for supporting him or them in doing what they do best, whether that's getting stage wins, accumulating points, or going for the overall win.

The first strategy to identify is the Breakaway. Where a team stays ahead of the peloton, for a short period, before rejoining the main group when they have lost momentum. Breakaways are a great method to use if a cyclist is not an exceptional climber or sprinter, because it gives them a chance at victory.

A second strategy is Attacks. This strategy frequently occurs on climbs and involves a rider abruptly breaking away from the peloton at an extremely high speed in hopes that the other riders won’t be able to keep up with them.

The Sprinters strategy is when a cyclist that finishes a race by suddenly accelerating to a high speed, and often uses the slipstream of an individual cyclist or a group of cyclists in order to conserve energy.

Another option for teams is the Lead-out Trains strategy. This is used to set up a rider for a sprint finish. One rider on the team rides at a very high speed, and the team’s sprinter follows close behind to benefit from their slipstream. This reduces wind resistance, and enables the sprinter to achieve faster speeds without using as much energy as they normally would.

Women's Cycling

The Tour de France has received much criticism for the lack of equality in the event. Currently, the tour is only open to male participants and tour organizers ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) hold a one-day race, La Course, to coincide with the men's three-week event, but it is criticized for its length and lack of TV coverage.

"The biggest bike race in the world is the Tour and they don't really seem to care much about women's cycling," says British double Olympic gold medallist Joanna Rowsell Shand.

"I don't think it's unfair to say that really, because they're not doing much for it.

"It varies around the world. The biggest platform for sport is the Olympic Games, when we have equal events. That's great, but it's the gap in between which needs to be filled."

David Lappartient (@DLappartient), president of the UCI, cycling's world governing body, has urged the ASO to extend La Course to 10 stages.

However, tour organizer Christian Prudhomme told Eurosport in February: "We organize many other competitions and want to develop women's cycling, but this is a no - simply because we do not know how to do that during the Tour de France."


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