Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Tour de France FAQ - A Guide for Newbies


The 2024 Tour de France bike race is about half over, and presumably the most exciting stuff is still ahead. It’s been really good so far—at least, to me, a bicycle road racing afficionado. But what about the typical American sports fan, who doesn’t know a white jersey from an albino cow? That’s what this guide is for. Now, even if you already know all about the Tour, you should still read on, because the real point of this post is, “What’s funny about this race?”

2024 Tour de France Frequently Asked Questions

How do I watch the Tour de France live?

In America, you have to either subscribe to Peacock Premium ($6/month) or Flobikes (which literally doesn’t post any pricing—if you have to ask, you can’t afford it). Otherwise, you can use a VPN to pretend you’re in Europe and watch Eurosport. If none of these options appeals to you, you can watch highlights on YouTube, or (best of all) move to Europe. Then you won’t have to get up so early.

What does “GC” mean?

It stands for “good climber.” Kidding! It’s actually General Classification, meaning the overall race. The GC leader is the guy whose cumulative time, across all days of the race, is the lowest. Whoever leads the GC at the end of the final (i.e., 21st) day has won the Tour de France. For all those who aren’t in contention for the GC, the there’s the prospect of winning a single day’s event (aka stage) of the race … that’s also a pretty big deal.

What is a time trial?

In the time trial event, each racer rides by himself and his time is taken. It’s basically the same format as downhill skiing. The time trial is called “the race of truth” because tactics, psychological gamesmanship, and drafting don’t come into play. Frankly, I think these more complicated aspects of cycling are the best things about it; by that measure, time trials aren’t the true test at all. Moreover, I think mass-start downhill ski races would be awesome.

The Tour de France sometimes features team time trials. They are totally badass, featuring each nine-man team going alone against the clock. I wish TTTs figured in every Tour.

What are the special jerseys about?

There are basically three categories of jersey: standard, leader’s, and what I’ll call “other.”

The standard jersey is what almost everyone on a team wears (i.e., if he’s not wearing a leader’s or “other” jersey). It’s basically a billboard for the team’s sponsors. This is how this sport gets its money: through advertising, like with NASCAR. Otherwise there’d be no feasible way to pay all the salaries, since nobody has to buy a ticket to watch the Tour. If you’re lucky enough to live in France, you can just stumble out your door and wander out to the road to see them all go by.

Then we have the leader’s jerseys, for those leading one of the overall categories of the Tour. The yellow jersey, or “maillot jaune,” is what the GC leader wears. Then you have the white jersey with red polka-dots which is worn by the King of the Mountains (aka KOM) leader. You’d think this would indicate the best climber of the race, but often it’s actually not. It’s the guy who wins the most sprints to the tops of climbs and is awarded points for doing so. Obviously this guy needs to be consistent, but not perfectly; if he lost 20 or 30 minutes on a mountain day he’d miss the opportunity for more points on that stage, but could hang on to his overall KOM lead. Why is this jersey polka-dotted? Beats me.

Next is the Points jersey, which is green, and identifies the guy who’s most consistent in the races that end in a sprint finish, and for extra (“intermediate”) sprint opportunities along the way. This jersey is green because … money? I have no idea. Doesn’t matter. Finally, we have the plain white Best Young Rider jersey, for the highest-placed GC rider under age 26. This jersey is white because this rider is also required to be a virgin. (No he’s not.)

The “other” jerseys exist because of distinctions riders have earned beyond the Tour. For example, the winner of the previous season’s World Championship road race gets to wear a white jersey with rainbow stripes for the entire season, including the Tour. Also, many countries have their National Championship road race before the Tour, and the winner of each gets to wear his champion jersey, which often resembles the country’s flag. This can be confusing, of course.

Has a rider ever won more than one jersey?

Yes, it happens sometimes. For example, Eddy Merckx won all the jerseys on offer back in 1969. More recently, in both the 2020 and the 2021 Tours, Tadej Pogacar won the yellow, white, and polka-dot jerseys. Note that if a rider is leading in more than one category, he wears the jersey for the most prestigious one, and the next highest rider in the lesser category wears that jersey. For example, right now in the Tour, Pogacar is leading the KOM category but also the GC, so he’s in yellow while the second place rider in the KOM, Jonas Abrahamsen, is in polka dots. There are cases of one jersey trumping another as well; for example, in this year’s Tour, Remco Evenepoel wore his white jersey (for best young rider) during the time trial, despite being the current time trial World Champion. (No, nobody else wore the rainbow stripe jersey for that stage.)

I’ve heard announcers call the Tour a “chess game on wheels.” Is it?

Well, not exactly. In chess, only half a player’s pieces (the pawns) match one another in terms of what they do and how, while you’ve got all these other pieces that move in unique ways. Imagine a cyclists who could only go in an L-shaped direction, like a knight. It’d be ridiculous. Cycling is really more like checkers.

But in terms of the more general question about tactics and strategy, this is a team sport where most teams have a single leader (occasionally two), and the rest of team members are trying to help him (or them). And some teams aren’t even trying for the GC victory but only want stage wins, based on what they can realistically hope to accomplish. So they might have one guy who goes for sprint wins and another for mountaintop wins, and the rest of the team supports that day’s leader.

What makes cycling so tactical is that you can save gobs of energy by riding right behind another rider, or ideally a bunch of them. (If you wondered what I meant by “drafting” earlier, that’s what it’s called.) So a team’s job is to a) keep their star rider out of the wind, and b) force other teams’ star riders out into the wind. This is why riders “attack,” which means to sprint off to try to “break away” (i.e., get ahead of the rest and build up enough of a gap not to get caught by the end). In cycling, “attack” rarely means to hit, kick, or bludgeon. When that does happen, it’s usually hilarious.

What is a domestique?

A “domestique” is literally a servant. Per the teamwork discussion above, sometimes a domestique’s job is to attack other riders to “put them into difficulty” (to use a favorite term of the sportscasters’), but at other times their job is to ride back to the team car to pick up water bottles and then carry them forward to the star riders. They’re also around to offer up their bike if a leader’s is broken, or to pace him back up to the group if he goes off the back for any reason.

There is a documentary about cycling domestiques called “Wonderful Losers: A Different World.” It suggests that a domestique’s main job is to crash his bicycle. I’m not sure how this movie got to be so warped; perhaps they just had gobs of crash and first aid footage they couldn’t resist using. I don’t recommend this one if you are a cyclist with a significant other who worries about your safety.

The riders all seem to have hearing aids, or maybe earbuds. Are they music lovers, or deaf?

Those are the race radios, which keep the riders in constant contact with their team directors. The directors give them instructions, warnings about road hazards, encouragement, and sometimes recite poetry.

Do the directors really recite poetry to the riders?

No. Of course not. What gave you that idea?

It seems like the helmets are just getting out of hand. Is this some kind of joke?

I assume you’re talking about the time trial helmets, like this one:

These helmets, designed to confer an aerodynamic advantage, are no joke, mainly because they’re not funny. They’re proof that people will do just about anything to gain an edge, when their careers are on the line. I think goofy helmets should be banned, for the good of the sport. And yet, for some reason, the Union Cycliste Internationale (aka UCI, the governing body of cycling) has not asked my opinion on this. Shoot, I’d be the arbiter for free, just to be nice.

By the way, if the helmet above doesn’t look like it would even cut through the wind very well, bear in mind it’s designed for a rider who’s got his head down. With any luck, said rider would run into something and learn his lesson.

I guess the silver lining is that cycling helmets seem to work pretty well … maybe the NFL should try them.

Why are pro bike racers so dang skinny?

It turns out that humans can be pretty close to starving and still perform at a very high athletic level, if their nutritional needs are being met (e.g., balanced diet). The Tour de France features gobs of brutal mountain passes, and to be competitive every rider needs to have a very high power-to-weight ratio. So Tour riders eat as little as possible in training, so they come to the race extremely lean. They do eat a lot during the race but then they’re burning probably 5,000 calories a day.

Of course not all the riders are that skinny (except by the standards of other sports like baseball and curling). The sprint specialists, who go for victories in the flatter stages, are pretty muscle-bound. But they still have to get over the mountain passes, and within a time limit based on when the leaders finish. So, they can’t be as ‘roided out as, say, an American football player.

Speaking of which, do the Tour riders use performance-enhancing drugs?

Short answer: probably. Surely not all of them, and maybe not even most of them, but the sport will never be rid of doping no matter how much it claims to have cleaned up. I base this on current race leader Tadej Pogacar’s absolute domination of this year’s Giro d’Italia (aka Tour of Italy, similar to the Tour de France), where he won by an extraordinary margin while setting a new record for the highest average speed ever in that race. Higher, even, then in the years where infamous dopers like Marco Pantani and Ivan Basso were winning it.

Couldn’t this mean only Pogacar is doping? No, because he lost the last two Tours de France, and there are plenty of other riders who, on a given day, manage to beat him. Too many riders are putting up overly impressive numbers (that is, data points like average speed, power output, and the ratio of rider’s power to his weight, which many consider to be the smoking gun). Even the domestiques are turning out unrealistically strong performances.

All that being said, cycling is probably no dirtier than most pro sports. At least the footage isn’t embellished with CGI like in the movies, and all the riders do their own stunts. As long as the doping arms race doesn’t get too unbalanced, it’s still a fun sport to watch.

In the context of bike racing, what does “stack” mean?

It means to crash. All the road cyclists I know use this term (e.g., “Dude, I hit some gravel and almost stacked!”) but, oddly, none of the commentators ever say it.

Speaking of commentators, they keep talking about this or that rider “getting back on terms.” What does this mean?

I think only the Peacock commentators, Bob Roll and Phil Liggett, say this. It means “catch back up” or “get back into favorable position,” but nobody else on the planet uses this term. I think those two are trying to start a thing.

Is there an official anthem of the Tour de France?

No, but in 1983 Kraftwerk recorded a song called “Tour de France” and you can watch the video here. Although Kraftwerk is German, the lyrics are all in French. They’re not all that interesting, but if you croon along or sing this in shower, you can substitute this line: “An American will never win/ Tour de France, Tour de France.” That’s what I was doing in the mid-‘80s before Greg LeMond surprised everyone. Actually, I still do this. Force of habit.

What has been the highlight of this year’s Tour so far?

I would say the highlight so far was Mark Cavendish breaking the record for most career Tour de France stage wins, with 35 of them, at age 39. What makes this so special, at least to me, is that it came after a long dry spell. Cavendish failed to win a single Tour stage between 2017 and 2020, and many thought he was all washed up. Perhaps he’d become a bit jaded, kind of lost the hunger. I think a lot of us can relate, especially as we age. For example, another middle-aged superstar, Eminem, has rapped eloquently about this:

Man, in my younger days
That dream was so much fun to chase
It’s like I’d run in place
While this shit dangled in front of my face
But how do you keep up the pace
And the hunger pangs once you’ve won the race?
When that dual exhaust is coolin’ off
‘Cause you don’t got nothin’ left to prove at all
‘Cause you done already hit ‘em with the coup de grace

Miraculously, in 2021, Cavendish suddenly regained his form, and perhaps his mojo, and won a remarkable four stages of the Tour, picking up the green jersey in the process and matching Eddy Merckx’s record for most career stage wins. It looked like Cav was back on track and positioned to break the record the next year. Amazingly, though, his Deceuninck Quick-Step team director, Patrick Lefevere, didn’t put him on the team for the 2022 Tour de France, and in fact terminated Cav’s contract at the end of the year. While Lefevere didn’t really explain himself, it’s widely acknowledged in cycling circles that he’s is a vainglorious, narcissistic, power-crazed douchebag. (Note: by “widely acknowledged” I mean it’s my personal opinion.) I can imagine this was very inspirational for Cav, to come back and show the world what an idiot Lefevere is for not believing in him.

So Cav changed teams for what he thought would be his final Tour in 2023, only to crash out early before winning anything. I think all us cycling fans thought that would be it, but Cav decided to go one more year and take a final crack at Merckx’s record. Clearly, he put in all the work required—which is a lot, for a 39-year-old trying to beat the young bucks in pure speed—and his sprint victory in Stage 5 of this Tour was glorious. He lived up to the rest of Eminem’s rap:

Still you feel the need to go full tilt
That Bruce Willis, that blue steel, that true skill
When that wheel’s loose, I won’t lose will
Do you still believe?

(Does Eminem have any idea who Mark Cavendish is? Surely not. But Eminem doesn’t read albertnet either, so it’s all good.)

Belief came up in the post-race interview after Cav’s amazing win. The journalist asked, “But that makes you the best? That mindset—that mental strength that you have?” Cav replied, “It’s definitely a benefit, you know, especially when you’re not physically as good as everybody else.”

Do exploits like Cav’s—coming back from the doldrums, persevering, and achieving great triumph—cut across all sports, inspiring all of us whether we’re cycling fans or not?

Why, yes. Yes they do. And thanks for asking!

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