How to Watch the Tour de France

A beginner’s guide to understanding the world’s best bike race

Getty Images/Doug Pensinger

What do all those jersey colors stand for again? Read on for a dummies' guide to watching the Tour de France

Saturday, June 30, marks the first day of the Tour de France, an annual awareness campaign for the sport of professional bike racing. If you’ve never tuned in for the Tour before, it can be an intimidating affair, full of team strategy, pile-ups and long stretches of relative boredom. This year marks the 99th annual running of the grand old race (it wasn’t held from 1940-1946) so now is a great time to tune in and learn the basics before next year’s 100th anniversary birthday bash. Here’s what you’ll need to know.

The Basics:
The Tour de France is the oldest (est. 1903) and most esteemed of the three Grand Tours—which also include the Giro d’Italia, held in May, and the Vuelta a España, held in August. This year’s edition runs from June 30 to July 22 and features one prologue and 20 stages over a combined distance of 3,497 kilometers—which is nearly 2,200 miles, folks.

Each stage is two races in one—one for the fastest time of the day, and a secondary contest for lowest cumulative time across all stages. Trivia: It’s possible to win the Tour de France without ever winning a single stage. In fact, this has happened six times in the history of the race, most recently in 2006, with Óscar Pereiro.

The Course:
The Tour de France course changes every year. The bulk of the race takes place in mainland France, though the race often crosses into neighboring countries. Here’s a map of this year’s route, which starts with a prologue in Belgium and ends with a sprint finish down the Champs-Élysées, as is custom.

The Prologue:
This year's course includes a prologue, which means plenty of fanfare and a shot for anyone to have a great day on the bike and get the chance to start Stage 1 wearing the famous yellow leader’s jersey. Starting one at a time, riders roll down a short ramp and onto the 6.4-km prologue course for an all-out sprint. The actual race time spent on this stage in the context of the nearly 3,500km race is a drop in the bucket. Instead, it’s all about the glory of donning the leader’s jersey, even if it may just be for a day.

Stages:
After the prologue there are three basic types of stages: time trials, sprints and mountains. The 2012 Tour will feature one time-trial prologue, two individual time-trial stages, nine flat sprint stages, four “medium mountain” stages (one with a summit finish—always exciting to watch), five mountain stages (two with summit finishes) and two very, very well-deserved rest days.

Time Trials:
These stages are the easiest to spot—riders take to the course wearing those crazy-looking aerodynamic helmets in what is essentially a race against the clock.

In past years a team time trial (TTT) has been included in the race for variation and flair, but this year’s two time trial (TT) stages will be individual events. The 2012 Tour will also feature more time-trial distance than in recent years, highlighting the need for power sprint skills in the 41.5km Stage 9 and 53.5km Stage 19. According to Cyclingnews.com, this could be good sign for defending champion Cadel Evans, who leveraged his time-trial skills to best runner-up Andy Schleck in 2011.

Sprint Stages:
Sprint stages are long and mostly flat, with teams bunching up into a peloton so they can save energy by drafting off each other. Generally riders take turns at the front of their pack in order to share the workload. Then, when the finish draws near, teams’ final leaders peel off to let the their fastest racer—who has been hanging back to conserve power—sprint into the lead. This is why sprint stages can seem less-than-thrilling until the final minute or so, when all the action goes down. Watch for photo finishes and epic crashes.

Mountain Stages:
Mountain stages rake racers up impossibly grueling climbs and over multiple snow-capped peaks. The climbs are categorized 1-4, with 1 being the most difficult, and some climbs labeled as HC, or “hors category”—too nightmarish to categorize. Little guys tend to excel in these stages. Tune in to Stages10, 11, 14, 16 and 17 to watch the for the steepest of the steep throughout the Alps and Pyrenees.

The Jerseys:
Ultimately, le Tour consists of more than 200 cyclists from all over the world competing in teams for money, glory and an array of multi-colored jerseys. Here’s how to tell who won what:

  • Yellow: Known in French as the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey is the “general classification” jersey—aka: the GC: aka, the guy with the fastest cumulative time so far.
  • Green: The green jersey goes to the best sprinter and time trialist based on points earned for sprints. Harder stages are worth more points, and points are awarded on order of finish—not time.
  • Red Polka Dots: This one goes to the rider who crushes the steep stages. Great climbers can become “King of the Mountains” and keep the polka dot jersey by earning the most points on top of each mountain stage.
  • White: The maillot blanc, or white jersey, goes to the best youngest overall rider under the age of 26.

Who to Root For:
It’s really up to you and where you stand on patriotism, underdogs, doping allegations and triumph of the human spirit—like when American upstart Tyler Hamilton broke his collarbone early on in the race and went on to take fourth overall. If you want to check out the teams and individuals who are competing this year, see this official list of riders. And if you want to pick a ringer, check out our slideshow of Riders to Watch at the 2012 Tour.

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