The Tour de France is one of the grand institutions of cycling. Away from the Olympics, the Tour is the event that every cyclist dreams of. The Tour began in 1903, and whilst the event has changed a great deal since then, there is some continuity, which gives the Tour a traditional feel. So if you find yourself watching a race, confused as to the different jerseys worn by the competitors, and confused by the technical jargon, then worry not. At its core the Tour de France is successful because of its simplicity. It is a majestic event, man and bike versus gravity, all against other competitors. It is this that makes it such a beautiful event.
If you’ve ever cycled a bike up a hill, then you’ll know the feeling – the burning pain, the lactic acid in the thighs, and the shortness of breath. The Tour de France riders feel this every single day. Unsurprisingly, however, there is a great deal of specialization in the Tour de France, with some riders being known for their ability up hills, some for their stamina over long distances, and others for being powerful over sprint finishes. This latter group contains the Isle of Man’s Mark Cavendish, whose raw leg power makes him the best in the world over a short distance. The Tour de France gives out jerseys to those who excel in different areas, based on an accumulation of points. The famous yellow jersey (maillot jeune) is given for the overall leader, although the brilliantly titled ‘King of the Mountains’ wears a white jersey with red spots.
In the early days of the Tour, the lack of technical advice and support teams meant that the riders had a far tougher time. Riders used to regularly stop at village bars to get beer and brandy to ‘help’ them up tough hills. The first time that the race included the Pyrenees Mountains in 1910 saw most riders get off their bikes and walk, given that all were carrying their spare tires and toolkits around their shoulders, and that the roads they were cycling on were unpaved. The Tour has become big business since then, and riders have gained support vehicles, technical advice, and the bikes themselves are truly from the space age. Cyclists now cycle with ‘teams,’ helping one another and with specialist roles. The big teams in the 2011 race were Team Astana and Team Sky, with Astana taking the overall title.
If you are looking to soak up some of the atmosphere of the Tour de France, then you can either look at the route for that year, or make sure you’re at the finish line on the Champs Elysee in Paris. If you book well in advance you will be able to get some great Paris hotel deals. Because of the traffic chaos as a result of the Tour, flights are usually the best option, particularly if you are heading to Paris. The Tour is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and something that has to be seen to be believed.
image via Boston.com