Get into... the Tour de France

Tour de France 

It’s that time of year when cycling fans from all over the world start excitedly mumbling bits of French and sitting glued to their TVs and laptops. Yes, it’s time for the 2011 Tour de France. But if you can’t tell your peloton from your echelon, or your domestique from your c’est magnifique, check out our beginners’ guide to find out what all the fuss is about...

There are three ‘Grand Tours’ in the world of cycling (a bit like grand slams in tennis), and the Tour de France is by far the most prestigious. Held over three weeks in summer each year, the world’s best riders battle it out over some 3,500 kilometres of challenging French terrain. The route varies each time, but usually includes classic stages like L’Alpe D’Huez, and always finishes with a sprint down the magnificent Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The race is broken into day-long segments, called stages, which can last four to six hours. It’s not about whether you come first or fourteenth here, but how quickly you finish – each rider’s finishing times are added together and that’s what determines the overall winner at the end of the race. At the end of each stage the rider with the lowest aggregate time so far gets to wear the coveted yellow jersey.

Around twenty multinational teams compete in the Tour. Each team is made up of nine riders who each have specific roles to play. The team leader is the star – the captain of the team who, with the team manager, helps determine the team strategy and who has the best chance of winning a stage. British Olympic gold medallist Bradley Wiggins (pictured below) is team leader for Team Sky. Overall there may only be seven or eight leaders who have the skills and consistency to win the Tour overall – but that doesn’t stop the others from trying to pick up a stage victory along the way. To win a single stage can set a rider up for life, and winning the Tour overall makes you little short of a cycling legend.

Bradley Wiggins

Just as important within the team though are the hard-working domestiques – the riders who support the team leader in all sorts of ways. They’ll ride back and forth with drinks and food for the leader, swap wheels with him if he gets a puncture, and ride bunched around to protect him from other riders and help him benefit from decreased wind resistance.

It’s not just a yellow jersey that’s up for grabs though. The green jersey rewards the most consistent riders who score stage wins – in practice, the sprinters who can storm over the line first. And the fetching polka dot jersey is reserved for the ‘King of the Mountains’ – the best climber. These guys are usually extremely lightweight but can power over hills most people would struggle to walk up.

If you spot a bunch of riders in all-in-one lycra skinsuits and space-age helmets, clutching weird handlebars (see below), you can be fairly certain the stage you’re watching is a designated time trial. This is where riders (or sometimes teams) start the stage at different times, competing purely against the clock.

Time trial

So who’s going to win this year? Hot favourites are last year’s winner, Spaniard Alberto Contador and the man he just pipped to the title, Andy Schleck from Luxembourg. The French would love a winner – for a cycling-mad nation, the fact that they haven’t had a Tour winner since 1985 has to hurt. As for Britain, we’ve never won it – though Scot Robert Millar was crowned King of the Mountains in 1984, and in 2009 Bradley Wiggins equalled Millar’s position of fourth overall, the best by a GB rider. Wiggins is currently in great form, so many people are eagerly watching to see what he’s capable of in the 2011 Tour.

So check out the Tour de France this year, both for the stunning shots of France you’ll see, for the sheer beauty of a pack of riders moving as one, and for some serious cycling action. The Tour gets the biggest live audience of any sporting event in the world and is a massive deal in the cycling world. The final stage takes place on Sunday 24th July.

Find out more about Team Sky and check out their Tour de France coverage.

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Images by Graham Watson