~Tour de France


Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Laurent Fignon

Laurent Fignon was a two time winner of the Tour de France, and one of the most beloved French cyclists of all time.  He won a variety of races other than the Tour de France in his career, and missed winning a third Tour de France by the smallest margin in race history. 

Fignon, born in 1960, won 18 races as an amateur before turning pro with the help of Cyrille Guimard.  Fignon started his career with the famed Renault-Elf-Gitane team, and quickly burst on the scene with skilled and tenacious riding. 

In the 1983 Tour de France, Fignon figured to play a supporting role to five time winner Bernard Hinault before Hinault ultimately was forced to withdraw from the race due to injury.  Fignon took full advantage of the opportunity he was given to shine, turning in one of the great time trial stage performances in history just before claiming his first yellow jersey midway through the race.  Fignon won the final time trial as well en route to winning his first Tour de France.

Fignon completed a repeat bid in the 1984 Tour de France, beating his former teammate, Hinault.  Hinault changed teams before the race, but Fignon was dominant, winning five stages on the way to his second Tour de France victory.  Fignon finished the race especially well garnering three of his five stage wins in the final several stages.

Unfortunately, Fignon couldn’t attempt a third straight win in the Tour de France, as a knee injury kept him from participating in 1985.  He did not finish the Tour de France in 1986 and 1988, and finished the 1987 installment, but only in seventh place.  In 1989, Fignon entered the Tour de France as the number one cyclist in the world, setting the stage for a legendary showdown between Fignon and the returning Greg LeMond, who was sidelined after being shot in a hunting accident.

During the 1989 Tour de France, Fignon watched as LeMond surprisingly earned the yellow jersey at Stage 5.  Throughout the race, Fignon played mind games with LeMond, challenging him through the press to ride more aggressively.  In time, it became a two-man race, as Fignon and LeMond battled with all they had.

From Stage 5 on to the finish, the yellow jersey belonged to either LeMond or Fignon, with the lead swapping from LeMond to Fignon, then back to LeMond briefly at Stage 15, then back to Fignon before the final time trial that would decide the victor.  Fignon had a 50 second lead, but LeMond out-strategized the former Tour de France champion, using a more aerodynamically sound bike and helmet and beating the Frenchman by 58 seconds for an 8 second overall victory.  Fignon was crushed, and the finish remains the closest in Tour de France history.

After the disappointment of the 1989 Tour, Fignon would finish no better than 9th in subsequent years, dropping out in 1990 and finishing 23rd in 1992.  He finally retired afterward, remaining one of the more popular French cyclists due to his persona and signature ponytail.  Because of his talent as well as his memorable personality, along with his participation in the legendary showdown of 1989 with Greg LeMond, Fignon remains one of the more beloved cyclists to have participated in the Tour de France.

Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Louison Bobet

Louison (or “Louis”) Bobet was one of the great post-war French cyclists.  In his career, he was able to win three Tour de France races (one of only eight riders to do so) and had four podium finishes in total.  He was also known as a talented climber and tenacious, if sometimes stubborn, competitor.

In 1925, Bobet was born in Brittany, a part of northwestern France, and would compete in his first Tour de France in 1947, at the age of 22.  The race did not go so well and certainly didn’t foreshadow Tour de France greatness, as Bobet failed to finish.

However, the following year, Bobet won two stages, was the race leader for a time, and finished fourth in the 1948 Tour de France.  It was in that year’s race that Bobet famously rejected the chance to wear the yellow jersey, because he preferred all wool jerseys and the yellow jersey contained some synthetic materials.  Race organizers had to have a wool version made up so that Bobet could wear it in the next stage.

In the 1950 Tour de France, Bobet would capitalize on his success by finishing third and winning the polka dot jersey as the race’s best climber.  He also garnered another stage win for himself that year.  Bobet didn’t make waves again in the Tour de France until 1953, but in that year’s edition he really put on a show.

During the 1953 Tour de France, Bobet celebrated the Tour’s 50th anniversary in his own way- by winning the overall race for the first time in his career.  He won two stages during that year’s race, including a five-minute victory over the field in a tough climb up the Izoard mountain that was celebrated as the race’s greatest moment.  He would ultimately finish almost fifteen minutes ahead of the next rider at the end of the race.

In the next years, Bobet would only continue his impressive performances.  In 1954, Bobet won a career-high three stages in a race known for being the first Tour de France not to start in France at all.  Bobet would then win his third consecutive Tour de France in 1955, winning two stages and winning by his slimmest margin, that being 4 minutes and 53 seconds over Belgium’s Jean Brankart.

Unfortunately, Bobet would not reach that high level again.  He raced his final Tour de France in 1958, finishing a modest 7th overall without garnering any stage wins.  Then, two years later, a car accident near Paris basically ended Bobet’s promising career.

Aside from the famous yellow jersey incident, Bobet was known for having the mannerisms and demeanor of a Hollywood star, and carrying himself in a rather elegant way that was different from the behavior of many cyclists during that era.  He also had a reputation for being somewhat moody, especially early in his career, where he took his defeats very hard and would sometimes cry in disappointment after a race.

Regardless of his reputation away from racing, Bobet proved himself to be one of the legends of French cycling.  His three consecutive wins put him in an exclusive class, and one can only wonder what he could have accomplished if he had remained healthy.  Despite the abrupt ending of his career, Bobet is one of the greatest riders in Tour de France history.

Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Lucien Petit-Breton

Lucien Petit-Breton was not only one of the first dominant riders in the history of the Tour de France, but also a great symbol of the eccentric and sometimes tragic time that he lived.  A two time champion of the Tour de France, Petit-Breton may have won more Tours had he not joined the French Army and died in World War I.

Lucien Petit-Breton was actually born Lucien Georges Mazan in 1882.  He was born in France and lived there until age six, but took on Argentinian nationality when he moved with his parents to Buenos Aires.  He would later adopt the new identity of Lucien Petit-Breton because he wanted to take up cycling, but his father wanted him to do something else instead.  He couldn’t simply be Lucien Breton, because there was already one who was also a cyclist.

Petit-Breton may not have ever gotten into cycling if he hadn’t won his first bicycle in a lottery.  He would use the free bicycle to help him get started, and as a young cyclist had some success in Argentina.  He was the track cycling champion there, although he would end up moving back to France after being drafted by the French Army.

In 1904, he continued his track cycling success before breaking the world hour record in Paris, cycling over 41 kilometers.  This was in 1905, around the time when Petit-Breton began participating in road races, rather than just in track cycling events.  1905 was also Petit-Breton’s first time participating in the Tour de France.  The race was a quirky one, with changes being made to try to limit the rampant cheating and tampering from previous races, and many riders having their tires punctured early on when spectators spread nails along the road.  Petit-Breton finished fifth among the chaos.

Petit-Breton improved his finish the next year, finishing fourth in another zany race.  More tires were punctured by spectator antics, and some riders even attempted to ride the train to get an edge on their competitors (they were disqualified).

Finally, in the 1907 Tour de France, Petit-Breton reached the level he had aspired to get to, winning the prestigious race.  Without the previous year’s winner in the field, Petit-Breton was able to stay near the front and take advantage when Émile Georget was caught borrowing a bicycle and received a penalty.  Petit-Breton won two of the later stages and held off Gustave Garrigou to win the race.

The next year, Petit-Breton repeated the feat by winning 5 stages (out of a possible 14), and proved those who considered him to be the race favorite right by easily besting the field.  In doing so, Petit-Breton became the first cyclist to win the Tour de France two years in a row.

Unfortunately, Petit-Breton would only compete in the Tour de France once more, in 1911.  The race itself was one of the most brutal in Tour de France history, and Petit-Breton was one of many to drop out early on in the proceedings.

Petit-Breton’s cycling career came to an end with the onset of World War I.  He would tragically die in 1917, bringing his life to an early end as well.  However, Petit-Breton would live on in cycling history as the first of the Tour de France’s truly great champions.

Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Lucien van Impe

Lucien van Impe was one of the better cyclists of his generation, with five Tour de France podium appearances including one win at the 1976 Tour de France.  Van Impe, known as a gifted climber who excelled in long, grueling mountain stages, won six Tour de France mountain classifications in addition to his overall race successes.

Van Impe was born in Mere, Belgium in October, 1946.  He became a professional cyclist largely due to the help of Federico Bahamontes, himself an expert climber who had won the Tour de France in 1959.  Van Impe would repay Bahamontes’ faith in him by eventually tying his record for most polka dot jerseys, with six. 

Bahamontes helped van Impe get his first professional contract, and van Impe raced his first Tour de France in 1969, finishing 12th overall.  The next year, van Impe raced again in the Tour de France, this time finishing in the top handful of cyclists, in the sixth position.

The year 1971 was when van Impe started to break out on his own and earn a reputation as a rider to be reckoned with, especially in mountain stages.  Van Impe earned his first podium finish at the Tour de France, also winning his first of six polka dot jerseys as best climber of the Tour de France in the process.

In the 1972 and 1973 editions of the Tour de France, van Impe would reach a personal milestone by winning a stage in each of the races, although he finished fourth and fifth, respectively, and wasn’t on the podium following the races.  He did add another of his six polka dot jerseys in 1972.  The 1974 Tour de France held only frustration and disappointment for van Impe, however, as he finished at 18th.

Luckily, the next year, van Impe proved that his 18th place finish was a fluke, as he again earned a podium finish with a third place performance in the 1975 Tour de France.  It was also the race where van Impe earned another polka dot jersey as well as his first time winning two stages in the same Tour de France.  It appeared that van Impe was primed to claim the title of Tour de France champion.

The 1976 Tour de France saw van Impe do exactly that, as he won the yellow jersey for the first time in his career, while winning another stage victory along the way.  Colorful stories have emerged to help explain van Impe’s victory, including one that Cyrille Guimard shouted to van Impe to attack leader Joop Zoetemelk, unless he wanted to be run off the road by Guimard’s car.  Of course, van Impe denies that it happened that way.

Try as he might, van Impe was never able to reach that level again.  He did finish 3rd in the 1977 Tour de France and 2nd in 1981, and he also added four more stage victories and three more polka dot jerseys, but he could never win a second Tour de France.  His successes were peppered with some disappointing finishes, including a 27th place finish in 1985 that marked the end of his participation in the Tour de France.

Nevertheless, Lucien van Impe’s Tour de France win in 1976, along with his other podium finishes and his reputation as one of the best climbers of all time, have reserved him a special place in cycling history.  Van Impe is also notable for being second only to Joop Zoetemelk for the amount of times he finished the complete Tour de France race (fifteen times, in fifteen attempts).

In 1987, van Impe retired for good, leaving behind a legacy as a tenacious competitor whose strength and perseverance in the climbing stages is still envied by those who race in the Tour de France year after year.  His drive and determination helped make him one of the more notable cyclists of all time.

Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Miguel Indurain

Miguel Indurain will always be known as one of the greatest cyclists to ever compete in the Tour de France.  Indurain was the first cyclist to ever win five straight Tour de France championships, and was one of only five riders to ever win five championships at all.  He was known as a gifted rider who excelled at time trials, and was nicknamed “Miguelón” due to his natural ability and his uncommon size for a cyclist.

Indurain competed in eleven straight years of the Tour de France, beginning in 1985, the year he turned professional.  He didn’t get off to the best start, as he dropped out of the running both of his first two years, and failed to crack the top twenty until 1989, when he finished 17th overall.  He did manage to build upon that success in 1990, finishing 10th, but no one could have predicted the incredible run he was about to begin the next year.

In the 1991 Tour de France, he won just two stages, but was still able to pull out the win in the overall race.  His two stage wins were individual time trials, contributing to his reputation as a time trial master.  In fact, he never won a non-time trial stage in any of his Tour de France victories.  In 1992, he would win his second straight Tour de France, aided by the infamous Stage 9 time trial, where Indurain won by over three minutes, even though the stage was only 65 kilometers long!  In the end, Pascal Lino couldn’t hold onto the yellow jersey, and surrendered it to Indurain in the 13th stage, who never lost it, finishing over 4 ½ minutes ahead of Italy’s Claudio Chiappucci.

In the next three years, Indurain cemented his reputation as a legend in the making, as he continued to dominate the yearly Tour de France.  He would win each year by several minutes, helping his own cause by continuing to race brilliantly in individual time trials while working hard to maintain his leads in the other stages.  In 1995, he held the yellow jersey for the last 13 of the race’s 19 stages.

Unfortunately, in 1996 Indurain’s incredible run came to an end.  He was slowed significantly by an onset of bronchitis that occurred after a cold and soggy first week of racing.  He would finish at 11th, his worst finish since 1989, and although he still was one of the most gifted cyclists in the world, would retire in later that year as one of the greatest riders in the history of the Tour de France.

Almost as impressive as his string of victories was Indurain’s reputation for being a kind and gracious competitor.  With the media and other competitors, he was a quiet person who never let his success get to his head, even as he put together his unprecedented run of five straight Tour de France wins.  He claimed to never feel superior to the other riders, despite the fact that he clearly was through much of his career.  Not only was Indurain one of the most incredible talents to ever pedal a bicycle, but he always set an example of kindness and humility for fans, his countrymen, and fellow riders as well.

Great Cyclists of the Tour de France: Philippe Thys

Philippe Thys, one of the better Belgian cyclists of all time, is one of the most prolific champions in Tour de France history, with three yellow jerseys to his credit.  In fact, Thys is credited by some as being the first rider to wear a yellow jersey, though he wasn’t presented it in an official capacity.  Thys was one of the most talented young riders in the history of cycling.

On October 8, 1890, Philippe Thys was born. A talented cyclist already at twenty years old, he was winning competitions in Belgium before winning his first Tour de France three years later, in 1913.  Thys won only one stage, Stage 6, but was the leader from Stage 9 through the end of the race as he bested perennial runner-up Gustave Garrigou.

Thys’ win in 1913 would also contain a story that really summed up the era in which he raced.  He was the unfortunate recipient of a broken fork on his bicycle, so he got the owner of a bicycle shop to repair it for him.  However, the fix also got him a penalty of thirty minutes.  Of course, Thys was still able to win, with a finishing lead of around two minutes.

Also, many cycling enthusiasts trace the history of the yellow jersey back to Philippe Thys and the 1913 Tour de France.  Thys claimed that he was asked by race officials to don a yellow jersey during the race by organizer Henri Desgrange.  Originally, Thys said he declined, as the jersey would be akin to having a target on his back.  After Desgrange explained that it was part of a promotion for his newspaper, Thys reportedly relented.

In the 1914 Tour de France, Philippe Thys picked up right where he left off.  He won the first stage from Paris to Le Havre, on the same day that Franz Ferdinand was assassinated to mark the beginning of World War I. 

Later on, just a week after Thys put the finishing touches on his second straight Tour de France victory, Germany declared war on France.  As a result, Thys would not get a chance to win a third straight title.  For the next five years, there was no Tour de France, and Thys unfortunately lost a great portion of the prime of his career during that time.

Finally, seven years after his second Tour de France win, Philippe Thys returned to the race with a dominating win in 1920.  Thys finished an astonishing 57 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of the second place Hector Heusghem, winning an impressive four stages (out of a possible 15) in the process.

In Thys’ final Tour de France appearance, in 1924, Thys won two stages but did not contend for the overall title.  His cycling career would essentially end at that point.  Thys lived on to be 80 years old before passing away.

Thys was always known as being an intelligent rider with a great work ethic.  As one of the more dominant riders in the early days of the Tour de France, Thys will always occupy a special place in the history of competitive cycling.  Fans still marvel at what he accomplished, and wonder even more about what he could have accomplished, had he not missed out on competing during much of the prime of his career.

Planning the Route of the Tour de France

For a race with the tradition and amazing legacy of the Tour de France, as much effort must go into the preparation of each year’s edition as the riders put into finishing the race in first place.  The Tour de France is famous for its length, its variety, and the grueling demands it places on those who attempt to conquer it, as well as the other competitors.  Therefore, the race organizers must put a lot of effort and time planning each year’s race, to ensure that each installment is worthy of the reputation that the Tour de France has earned over the last 105 years.

There are many things that have to be taken into account when planning the yearly route of the Tour de France.  For one, stages must combine to make a certain overall length that will be similar to races past.  At the same time, there must be a variety within the stage types, with small, medium and large climbs to go with sprints and individual time trials.  It’s important that the course be balanced, so that neither the climbers, sprinters or the time trial specialists have an unfair advantage over the other racers.

One of the most charming aspects of the Tour de France is the fact that the race highlights French towns that otherwise would never get the kind of global attention that they do during the race.  The Tour de France is the one time of year that a relatively small community can become, for one day at least, the center of the cycling universe.  The experience can be overwhelming, amazing, and a dream come true all at the same time for the towns involved.

To even be considered as a town that will be part of the Tour de France’s route, towns must submit their request and be part of a long and sometimes tiring selection process.  Meetings are had, town leaders give their best arguments for their inclusion and votes are performed, among other things that have to be done to decide which towns will be home to Tour de France stops.  The decision can be a difficult one, as towns have to be able to accommodate all of the hoopla and saturation that can occur from being part of such a huge and historical event.

Meanwhile, the individual stages must be combined to make a meaningful whole and to give the race a cohesive feel.  The Tour de France has to be planned carefully, so that riders don’t have several stages in a row of huge mountain climbs or sprints.  Also, rest days have to be scheduled in, and in a town that can accommodate the swell of humanity that will come and go over a 24 to 48 hour period as a result of the Tour de France stopping by.

It’s also important that the race itself not be a stale retread of the ones from years past.  Each Tour de France has to respect the tradition of the race while creating its own identity simultaneously.  For this reason, some towns are a part of the race seemingly year after year, while each year, the race organizers attempt to add some new flavors to the proverbial stew to keep things fresh.

As you can see, planning the Tour de France is quite a daunting task.  Although the people behind the scenes will never get the fanfare and attention that the riders who traverse the race receive, they are in many ways just as important when considering the outcome of the race and how entertaining it is.

The First Tour de France: A Humble Beginning

The Tour de France is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and famous sporting events in history.  For over one hundred years, great athletes have traversed vast roads and steep mountain climbs in France for the title of world’s greatest cyclist.  It’s hard to believe, then, that the historic race began as a publicity stunt for a newspaper!

In 1903, the publishers of the French newspaper L’Auto wanted to outdo the cycling race promoted by a rival newspaper.  The paper’s cycling journalist, Géo Lefèvre, came up with idea to have a race throughout France, separated by stages.  He discussed it with editor Henri Desgrange after lunch, and the idea took off.  In January, the first ever Tour de France was announced.

However, many details had to be ironed out before the race could even begin.  Originally, the race was planned to be an incredible five weeks long.  Unfortunately, that proved to be intimidating to most cyclists, as only just over a dozen were willing to take on a race of that magnitude.  By cutting the length severely to a total of nineteen days, more entrants were enticed to give it a try.  It also didn’t hurt that participants were given a daily allowance for their efforts.  The changes increased the participation in the inaugural Tour de France by four times the original number of riders, to sixty.

The participants themselves were almost exclusively French, with a handful of riders from other countries, mostly Germany, Sweden, or Italy.  The riders included some personalities that captured the imaginations of French cycling fans, such as the 20-year old Lucien Pothier and experienced cyclist Maurice Garin.  Many of the riders, attracted by the promise of the daily allowance, were amateur cyclists, or unemployed and simply looking for something to do with themselves.  Fans also were intrigued by the sheer scope of the race, and the fact that some of the stages were so long that riders had to keep cycling on into the night.

Maurice Garin took an early lead once the race started, taking the first stage during the ride from Paris to Lyon.  He held on to the overall lead, even as Hyppolite Aucouturier won the next two stages.  Despite this spirited challenge, Garin won the last six stages, and the first ever Tour de France.  Garin was actually quite dominant, finishing over two hours ahead of the afore-mentioned youngster, Lucien Pothier.  Fernand Augereau rounded out the top three cyclists in the first race.

There was definitely a disparity in talent in the first race, as the adventurous nature of the race attracted even the most unorthodox of challengers.  In fact, Garin finished over 64 hours ahead of the last place finisher, Arsene Millocheau of France.  Again, this only endeared the Tour de France to those who were already intrigued by the massive race.

The 1903 installment of the Tour de France served its purpose not only by launching the overwhelmingly successful cycling championship that has lasted over one hundred years, but also by giving L’Auto the publicity and sales bump that its editors so badly wanted.  During the race itself, readership of the newspaper almost tripled, as a matter of fact.

The riders themselves would continue on into the next year.  Garin, Pothier, and Aucouturier would compete in the 1904 Tour de France, which was a ragtag affair marred by cheating and occasional riots by fans.  All three would end up being disqualified, which kept Garin from winning his second straight Tour de France.

From such humble beginnings, an annual spectacle known the world over has resulted.  Throughout the last one hundred and five years, heroes as well as villains have emerged to succeed the likes of Garin and Pothier.  Almost as amazing as the athletes that compete in the Tour de France is the fact that the race itself came from such a humble and unassuming beginning, as a race organized to promote a simple French newspaper.

The Route of Champions: The 2008 Tour de France Race Route

Every year, hundreds of French towns dream of being one of the towns along the route of the Tour de France.  Over two hundred towns are considered on a permanent basis to hold one of the stages of the Tour de France, and each has to go through an extensive selection process to be chosen.  If your town is chosen to be along the route of the Tour de France, that means that for one day, all eyes across the world will be on your town.  With the Tour de France being such a prestigious event, steeped in history and tradition, it’s easy to see why being selected is such an honor.

The 2008 Tour de France race route will consist of 21 stages, covering a total of 3,500 kilometers.  The stages will vary, as always, and this year’s stages include ten flat stages, nine mountain climb stages (four of which are medium length), and two individual time trial stages.  Included along the way will be two rest days, much to the relief of the riders who will be competing.

The race itself will start off with three flat stages, beginning on Saturday, July 5 and running through Monday, July 7.  A total of approximately 569 kilometers will be traversed as competitors begin in Brest and make their way to Nantes to end stage three.  This is the first year since 1967 in which the race will not begin with a prologue.  Instead, riders will jump right into the race and fight it out through a hilly first stage, arriving in Plumelec.  The second stage will be short, but intense as riders endure a hilly route, and the third stage will pass through the current hometown of Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault.

After an individual time trial on Tuesday, July 8, riders will face a variety of challenges over the next six days, leading up to the first rest day on Tuesday, July 15.  Finally, we’ll have our first medium mountain stages during stages six and seven, as riders will test themselves early in the race to arrive at the finish line at the summit of Super-Besse and at the descent to Aurillac.

The riders will then rest in Pau before beginning a medium mountain stage beginning in Lannemezan and finishing in Foix.  This stage, the eleventh of the 2008 Tour de France, will take place in the foothills of the Pyrenees for the first time.  Cycling enthusiasts are keeping an eye on this stage as one that may bring surprises to riders and fans alike.

Three plain stages follow, with riders going through Narbonne, Nimes, and finishing at Digne-les-Bains in stages twelve through fourteen.  These stages represent a vital area for sprinters to make a push before heading into the difficult three high mountain stages that bring us toward the end of the race.  A poor performance along these three stages will spell defeat for any sprinter, as things definitely will get no easier.

As mentioned, the next three stages are very difficult mountain stages, with a rest day mercifully coming between the first and second of the three.  Highlights include the highest passing in France, as climbers will attempt to take a final lead leading into the last few stages of the 2008 Tour de France.

We will likely see a close finish, as a medium mountain stage on Thursday, July 24 leads into the final three stages of the race at the end of July.  The sprinters will be back in the spotlight for the nineteenth through twenty-first stages, as the flat course will benefit them.  One last time trial beckons on the twentieth stage, before the traditional finish at Paris Champs-Élysées crowns another Tour de France champion.

The proverbial stage has been set for another hero to emerge at this year’s Tour de France.  From looking at the challenging route of this year’s race, it’s clear that this year’s champion will have to race with heart and passion to persevere to the finish.

The Tour de France: A Beginner’s Guide

The Tour de France is an incredibly exciting event that is followed by fans all across the world.  However, the Tour de France can also be intimidating to those who aren’t familiar with the sport of cycling, or the race itself.  Let’s go over some of the basics, so that you’ll be able to follow this year’s Tour de France with a better understanding of the events taking place!

First of all, the object of the Tour de France is, of course, to finish the overall race with the fastest time.  What complicates things is that the Tour de France is a race that is divided up over a period of about three weeks.  It’s important to know that the race itself is divided into different parts called stages.  Each stage lasts one day, although the stages can be quite long.  There are a total of 21 stages, and the complete race is usually well over 1,800 miles (or over 3,500 km) long! 

Although the object of the Tour de France is to win the overall race as a whole, each stage is treated much like its own individual race.  Winners of stages receive prize money, and winning a stage of the Tour de France is often regarded as a bigger accomplishment than winning other single-day races.  The stages themselves can be flat, mountainous, or anywhere in between, and often there are individual time trials that serve as stages.  Competitors generally get a couple of days to rest during the race, as well.

If you’ve seen footage of the Tour de France before, or heard others talk about it, you probably want to know what the yellow jersey is all about.  The famed yellow jersey is one of four different jerseys that designate that the rider wearing it has achieved a specific feat.  The rider wearing the yellow jersey is the overall leader of the race.  To determine who has earned the yellow jersey at any point in the race, officials merely take the lowest overall combined time from all the stages.

The green jersey is awarded to the points leader in the race.  Points are earned according to passing order at the finish line or in intermediate sprints.  For this reason, riders who specialize in sprints are generally those found wearing the green jersey.

The distinctive polka dot jersey goes to the leader of the “mountain classification”, with points being earned according to passing order on mountain stages.  Therefore, it is often said that the rider wearing the polka dot jersey is the best climber of the race.

Finally, the white jersey is only worn by riders aged 25 years or younger.  This jersey is intended to spotlight the rising stars of the cycling world and the Tour de France.  Many riders who wore the white jersey have also gone on to win the coveted yellow jersey in their careers.

There are other awards given during the Tour de France as well.  The combativity prize is also known as the fighting spirit award and is awarded by a panel of eight cycling specialists.  There is also a team award called the team classification, which is given after adding the times of the top three riders for each team for each stage to get a total time.  Riders in teams often assist each other by “slipstreaming” behind one another for better speed, or using other team tactics.  Teams are grouped by common sponsors.

It also bears mentioning that finishing straight stages in the top three can earn you bonus seconds, which help you shave precious seconds off of your total time.  Also, the final mountain climb of the Tour de France is for double points, which is a great incentive for climbers.  The double points were added to the official race rules starting in 2004.

Now that we’ve addressed the basics of the Tour de France, you’ll be better prepared to enjoy one of the world’s most prestigious and historic sporting events.  Make sure to pay attention to what’s going on during the races, and you’ll find that it’s not nearly as complicated as it may have seemed.  Before you know it, you’ll be cheering your favorite rider on towards the yellow jacket!

The Tour de France, Explained

Millions of people worldwide are transfixed each and every year as the annual Tour de France is run.  In case you aren’t one of these people, and you don’t really get what the fuss is about, or maybe you just don’t understand the rules and terminology, here is a quick primer so that you can join in on the fun this year! 

The Tour de France started in 1903 when a French newspaper wanted to drum up some publicity and attract a larger readership to their publication.  The idea to have a multi-day, multi-stage cycling race came from young Géo Lefèvre, who was the cycling reporter for the newspaper.  The idea was altered and molded into a reasonable facsimile of what we see today: a race that traversed through small towns in France, taking cyclists a few weeks of grueling rides to complete.  The first race was a success, as it has obviously led to over one hundred years of tradition, and it also increased the readership of the newspaper, so it fulfilled its original objective.

Since then, the Tour de France has evolved, but much of it has also stayed the same.  Towns compete each year to be added as waypoints along the Tour de France route, and are selected by a committee to join the prestigious ranks of those who have hosted the race for a day.  The race still attracts riders from all around the world, although the prestige (and money) of the Tour de France brings a much wider variety of cyclists than in the first years of the race.  The race itself is also still a marvelous example of variety, as the race is split up into mountain stages large and small, hilly sections of road, and flat sections for quick sprints.

Many fans who are new to the Tour de France don’t understand why one rider is wearing a yellow jersey, and why sometimes a new rider is wearing it the next day (don’t worry, they wash it first).  Well, the yellow jersey is famous as being worn by the current overall race leader.  Therefore, wearing the yellow jersey is not only a great honor, but a great responsibility.  It essentially paints a target on your back, and reminds all the other cyclists what they are racing for.  If you are wearing the yellow jersey, you’d best be ready to defend it!  Other jerseys include the green jersey, the white jersey, and even the polka dot jersey.  They are awarded to the race’s point leader, best young (under twenty five years old) rider, and best climber, respectively.

It was mentioned earlier that the race is split into stages.  The stages are sections of the race that are traversed in a single day, which combine to make the race as a whole.  Riders do get a break at the end of each stage- they’re only human, after all- only to continue the next morning at the next stage.  The 2008 Tour de France features twenty one stages.  The riders also are recipients of two rest days, which are spaced out throughout the twenty three day event. 

Cyclists often compete as part of a team.  This may seem strange, as cycling would appear to be an individual sport, but teams have been part of the Tour de France for a long time.  Teams can actually help each other quite a bit in a race, by pacing each other, blocking off the competition, or “slip streaming” for maximum speed by riding directly behind one another.  During some years, the teams were based on the national origin of riders, but now the teams are organized by sponsors.

At the end of the Tour de France, the riders’ finishing positions are determined by simply adding each rider’s time on each stage together to get a total race time.  The cyclist with the lowest overall time is the winner of the Tour de France, and joins a great tradition of legendary athletes dating back over one hundred years.  Make sure to follow the Tour de France this year, as history is made yet again on the roads of France!

The Tour de France: The First Extreme Sports Event?

These days, with skateboarders and BMX bikers doing backflips and covering 50 foot gaps from giant ramps, it’s probably hard for youngsters to think of the Tour de France as a dangerous sport.  However, in the golden tradition of the Tour de France, there have been three tragic deaths due to injuries sustained while racing.  While it’s not very pleasant to talk about the tragedies that have occurred during the most prestigious cycling race in the world, it does highlight the dangers that cyclists face, the amount of skill that is required by the sport of cycling, and the importance of safety measures in the sport itself.

The first cyclist to die during the Tour de France didn’t actually perish as a result of the race itself.  Instead, French rider Adolphe Helière drowned during a rest day.  The site of the tragedy was the French Riviera, where Helière was resting and relaxing before heading back out on the course to finish the race.

It was 1935 before the sometimes treacherous, always challenging Tour de France saw the death of a rider during the actual event itself.  In a tragic and terrible twist of events, Spanish cyclist Francisco Cepeda passed away after falling down a ravine in the Col du Galibier stage.  His skull fractured, Cepeda sadly died three days after the fall.

We often think of performance enhancing drugs and other methods of cheating as a problem of modern sports exclusively, but the next death at the Tour de France was directly related to the issue, and it happened way back in 1967.

English cyclist Tom Simpson died of heart failure that was brought on by the combination of the conditions, the stress on his body from the demanding race, and his use of amphetamines.  Simpson was the first English rider to ever wear the yellow jersey, and his determination showed through even on the day he passed away. 

Exhausted, dehydrated, and suffering from the heat and his amphetamine use, he fell against an embankment as he couldn’t go on during the climb of Mont Ventoux.  Even though he was barely conscious, he insisted on being put back onto his bike, and he managed to ride on for several hundred meters before he feel unconscious.  He passed away when he arrived at the hospital.

The only silver lining after Simpson’s tragic death was that it accelerated concern over substance abuse by riders.  Eventually, more knowledge of nutrition, hydration techniques and the dangers of many substances helped to ensure that others would not suffer the same fate as Simpson.

The most recent death in the Tour de France is also perhaps the saddest.  Fabio Casartelli of Italy, a former Olympic gold medalist, was descending a dangerous part of the Portet d’Aspet when he crashed, along with several other cyclists.  Unfortunately for Casartelli, his injuries were much more severe than those of the other riders.  Casartelli slid and hit his head on a concrete railing area and didn’t live long enough to reach the hospital.  The next day, the entire group of Tour de France participants dedicated the stage to Casartelli, as Casartelli’s team was allowed to finish first and as a group, with the rest of the field finishing behind, riding slowly.  A fund was also set up to help out Casartelli’s wife and infant son, and riders donated their day’s purses to the fund, with the Tour de France organizers matching the donation.

Like Simpson’s unfortunate death, Casartelli’s led to change within the Tour de France.  Helmet rules were established and consistently made stricter, until recently where it has gotten to the point that riders must wear helmets at all times or be fined.

As you can see, cycling is not a sport for the faint of heart.  Each year, heart stopping crashes occur at speeds of 40 or even 50 miles per hour.  Even with helmets, it’s clear that cycling is a dangerous sport, especially in events like the Tour de France, where steep mountain climbs and descents demand tremendous skill and resilience from the athletes competing.  Even if you’re not a cycling fan, you should definitely respect the great athletes of the sport, who bravely risk their well-being and ride with the determination and passion of champions.

The Yellow Jersey: A Standard of Excellence

When you think of the most iconic trophies in all of sport, you may think of the Stanley Cup, or the World Cup trophy, or the Vince Lombardi trophy.  However, it’s hard to imagine an honor more distinctive than the Tour de France’s yellow jersey.

While not exactly a trophy, the jersey is awarded to the winner of each year’s Tour de France.  What sets it apart from other awards involves two major differences from the rest: that it is worn by competitors, and that it is actually awarded (and re-awarded) during the competition itself, not just at the end of the competition.

One has to wonder exactly how a tradition like the awarding of the famed yellow jersey got started.  If you talked to Philippe Thys, he would have told you that in 1913, Henri Desgrange (the original race organizer) asked him to wear a brightly colored jersey so observers would distinquish him from the field.  Thys was not exactly into the idea of becoming a moving target for other riders, but later conceded.

However, the first official awarding of the yellow jersey wasn’t until six years later, in 1919.  Eugène Christophe, a French rider, was the first to wear it during the course.  Supposedly the distinctive color was either decided upon because of the yellow newsprint of L’Auto, which is the newspaper that created and organized the Tour de France, or because yellow was an unpopular color choice for riders and therefore would stand out and be readily available from manufacturers.  It all depends on who you’d rather believe.

Although wearing the yellow jersey today makes one the subject of admiration and praise, Christophe didn’t receive that kind of reaction.  Instead, he claimed that spectators would make canary noises as he rode by, as well as just generally heckling his “choice” of attire.

The yellow jersey has gone on to have a history rivaling that of the Tour de France itself.  One of the more memorable yellow jersey problems has always been when more than one rider ties for the right to wear the jersey.  In years past, it was decided that tie breakers would be utilized to keep from having to have more than one yellow jersey-donning rider at a time. 

At times, there have also been a lack of riders wearing the yellow jersey. 

Switzerland’s Ferdi Kubler was the first to pass up the chance to wear the yellow jersey, doing so because the previous race leader (Fiorenze Magni) had left the race as a result of alleged threats made to him and his Italian teammates by spectators.

In 1971, the great Eddy Merckx, widely considered as perhaps the best cyclist of all time, started a tradition of sorts by declining to wear the jersey when the previous leader crashed.  Luis Ocaña was in the lead when he crashed on the col de Mente, and Merckx wanted no part of the yellow jersey when he was able to take the lead as a result.

This new tradition was followed by Joop Zoetemelk, who opted out of the yellow jersey in 1980 when Bernard Hinault withdrew from a knee injury, Greg LeMond, who did the same after Denmark’s Rolf Sorenson was eliminated from the race by a crash, and most recently Lance Armstrong in 2005.  Armstrong wouldn’t start with the yellow jersey on because the previous wearer, David Zabriskie, was taken out of the race by a crash.  Armstrong later reconsidered at the urging of Tour de France organizers.

The only rider who refused the yellow jersey based upon its actual composition was Louison Bobet.  Bobet, an eventual multiple time champion of the Tour de France, did not want to wear the yellow jersey because it contained synthetic fabrics.  It seemed that Bobet was a wool man through and through, and he would not budge from his position.  Finally, another jersey had to be rushed out (this one was pure wool) to avoid the lack of a yellow jersey wearer in the next stage.

Although the yellow jersey has evolved into one of the most recognizable honors in all of sport, it had its growing pains, probably more so than any other sports award.  As you can see, the yellow jersey didn’t become a prestigious symbol of accomplishment overnight!

Tragedy at the Tour de France

Fabio Casartelli, like many young cyclists, dreamed of achieving infamy in the Tour de France.  Unfortunately, in an unprecedented bike crash, Casartelli lost his life and remains only the third rider to ever die during the Tour de France race. 

Fabio Casartelli was born in Como, Italy in August of 1970.  Throughout his amateur cycling career, he showed a lot of potential, most notably with his win of a gold medal in the road race event of the 1992 Olympic Games.  He finished one second ahead of the Netherlands’ Erik Dekker, who went on to win four stages of the Tour de France in his own career.

The first Tour de France Casartelli competed in was in 1993, although Casartelli didn’t accomplish much in his debut.  For the 1995 Tour de France, Team Motorola selected Casartelli to competed in the race, and Casartelli was hoping to improve upon his first appearance in the legendary race.

Casartelli was in the 15th stage of the 1995 Tour de France when he was suddenly involved in a crash with several other riders.  The crash occurred during the descent on the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrenees.  During the crash, Casartelli struck his head on the concrete blocks that lined the roadway, immediately causing him to lose consciousness.  Sadly, Casartelli didn’t make it to the hospital, as he stopped breathing during the helicopter flight and couldn’t be resuscitated. 

After Casartelli’s tragic death, there was some speculation that his life could have been saved, had he been wearing a bicycle helmet at the time of the accident.  However, the senior doctor of the Tour de France, Gerard Porte, refuted such claims, as he said that the helmet would not have covered the area of Casartelli’s head where he received the damage that led to his death.

If anything positive could be taken from Casartelli’s untimely death, it was the way the riders participating in the 1995 Tour de France came together after the tragic crash.  In tribute to Fabio Casartelli, his comrades in Team Motorola finished the next stage as a unit, crossing the finish line together.  The rest of the pack finished right after, riding slowly in a show of respect to their fallen peer.

Fabio Casartelli left behind a wife and an infant son, and cyclists and the Tour de France officials themselves made sure they weren’t forgotten.  A fund was established for Casartelli’s family, and all of the riders who received money for their participation and performances in the “tribute” stage donated their prize money to the fund.  The Tour de France organizers matched the amount donated to the fund, and many individuals also pitched in to help do their part and help Casartelli’s family.

Fabio Casartelli’s death also helped to accomplish stricter helmet regulations for Tour de France riders.  Over time, helmet rules have consistently been strengthened, and now riders can be fined for not wearing their helmets during any portion of the Tour de France.  Even if Casartelli’s death couldn’t have been prevented by the use of a helmet, the fact that helmet use has become more widespread and required by race organizations means that his death was not in vain.

The thought of a sportsman like Fabio Casartelli losing his life in the midst of a competition is a dreadful one indeed.  While there’s no guarantee that a tragedy like what happened to Casartelli won’t ever happen again, it’s important to know that precautions are being taken to keep such things from happening, and that Casartelli has not and will not be forgotten.

Understanding the Rules of the Tour de France

To the uninitiated, the world of cycing and specifically, the Tour de France can be a bit confusing.  With all the talk of yellow jerseys, time trials, race leaders and feed zones, the Tour de France is sometimes a bit intimidating to new fans.  And what in the world is with the teams?  It’s an individual sport, right?  Well, have no fear, cycling newbies: your initiation is here!

First, let’s discuss the whole team thing.  Riders group up in teams as a part of their strategy, more than anything else.  You might wonder how much strategy can be involved in riding a bike as fast as you can to a finish line, but you’d be surprised!  Each team member usually has their own objective and role in the overall team strategy.  The goal is for a member of the team to win the overall classification, or first place, in the Tour de France.

Teams must adhere to rules, just like individuals.  First of all, team members all wear matching outfits.  However, the jerseys can deviate from that of the team designation if a rider of a team has earned an honor that gives them a special jersey.  These honors include being the overall leader of the race (yellow jersey), the best rider on climbing, or mountain stages (polka dot jersey), the best sprint rider (green jersey) and the best young rider of 25 years or younger (white jersey).  These jerseys are updated as the race continues, and can change hands several times during the race, or even with every new stage.

Stage, you ask?  What’s a stage?  Well, long races such as the Tour de France, which typically lasts over three weeks, are divided into one-day portions called “stages”.  The stages themselves are usually based upon a certain theme or type, of which there are a few.  There are climbing, or mountain stages, sprint stages on flatter ground, individual time trials, where riders race alone for a great time, and others. 

The stages are generally mixed up and spread out throughout the overall race, and are balanced so no one type of rider can dominate the race.  Since most riders specialize in a certain type of racing (for instance, climbing), you can understand how important it is to balance the stage types within the race.

One of the newer requirements, or at least a requirement that is stricter than before, is the required use of a helmet in all stages of the Tour de France.  It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when helmets weren’t required at all, even during 50 mile per hour descents down steep mountains!  With injuries and even a rare death contributing to concern over rider safety, helmet requirements have stiffened over recent years.

The feed zone may sound like it’s from the world of cattle raising rather than cycling, but the eating and drinking of Tour de France cyclists is actually serious business.  Tour officials closely monitor what goes into their competitors, and things like water bottles have to be approved by them before they can be used.  The feed zone is just what it sounds like, an area where riders can grab some quick nourishment as they roll by on their bicycles.  Sometimes, cyclists can also be handed water or snacks on other areas of the course by team officials in vehicles or motorcycles (no, seriously), but that’s also closely monitored by Tour de France officials.

One relatively sad, but necessary, evolution of Tour de France rules is reflected in the mandatory drug testing that takes place at every stage in the race.  Every participant is tested before the race, and once the race starts, random cyclists are selected at each stage to be tested as well.  The stage and race leaders are given a drug test at each stage automatically.

The Tour de France is a simple, yet complicated affair.  In essence, it is simply a bicycle race, with riders trying to finish as fast as they can.  However, the level of competition has made many rules and policies necessary to ensure fair and efficient competition.  Knowing the rules can help you enjoy the Tour de France much more.  Make sure to learn all you can before this year’s Tour de France kicks off!

Variety is Everything: Stage Types of the Tour de France

One of the things that makes the Tour de France a great spectacle is the wide variety of stages that riders must endure to win the yellow jersey for once and for all.  The Tour de France requires versatility from its cyclists, as each year the stages are made of a good mix of climbs, sprints, and other stage types.  If you’re lost as to what the different type of stage types are, and what strategies they require, read on!  You’ll enjoy the race much more if you understand what challenges are presented by the different types of stages.

The prologue is a relatively new type of stage that has been introduced to get the race off to a fast start and determine a first stage leader for the Tour de France.  This stage is much shorter than other stage types, usually clocking in at under 8 kilometers!  This means that the fastest riders can usually complete the prologue in around 7 minutes.  However, even with the short stage time, the prologue is a nice appetizer for the stages to come, and provides race fans with a quick look at the year’s competitors.  Winning the prologue is not exactly essential for winning the entire race, and it’s more a formality than anything.  Not every year’s edition of the Tour de France even contains a prologue.

Sprint stages are often very flat, and allow each team’s sprint specialists to zoom down the road at top speed towards the finish line.  Sprint stages often have a large peloten (or pack) of riders, as there is no real climb or descent to divide them or separate them.  As such, sprint stages often seem like the less demanding stage type, but are often quite the opposite.  After all, when racing in a thick pack at high speeds, the slightest slip up can lead to a huge crash that can end one’s bid at the Tour de France’s yellow jersey.

The climbing, or mountain, stages of the Tour de France give the race much of its unique flavor.  Climbing stages are often extremely demanding, as riders struggle to push the pace, or simply keep up with it, while enduring long inclines that are categorized by their steepness and length.  Of course, the ascent of such mountain roads also lead to spectacular descents at high speeds which can lead to some of the most dangerous and exciting moments of the entire race.  Many champions of the Tour de France have been excellent climbers, such as the great Lance Armstrong, or former champion Lucien van Impe.  It’s important to be a good all-around cyclist, but being a tenacious climber can allow you to put valuable distance between yourself and the pack in the Tour de France.

Individual time trials can be the difference between rousing success and disappointing failure at the Tour de France.  During an individual time trial, riders compete by themselves against the clock to achieve the fastest time possible, usually in a distance of around fifty kilometers.  With the shorter stage distance, the competition to shave every millisecond possible is pretty heated, and the emphasis is on proper race strategy, pacing, and technique.  Unlike other stages, where a rider’s team can assist them, there is no one to help cut down wind resistance, push the pace, or provide other help in an individual time trial.  The distance of a time trial is too far for a cyclist to start out at their highest possible pace, but not far enough that they can’t push themselves throughout.  Therefore, the strategy of a rider is one of the major factors that determines where they finish in an individual time trial.

These are the main stage types of the Tour de France.  As you can see, riders must be ready for everything, and work hard to overcome any weaknesses when they race in the Tour de France.  The variety of stage types works to demand that each year’s winner be a versatile cyclist who can persevere against all kinds of challenges.  After all, that’s what makes the Tour de France so great.

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