Chances are you’re pretty familiar with wine – especially if you’re following my blog! And as the race progresses over the next three weeks, I will provide some food and wine pairing ideas along with a little background on the wine regions and history associated with the territory for each stage. But you might not be as familiar with cycling in general or the Tour in particular. Here’s your tuTOURial!
The Tour de France, contested over three weeks every July, is one of three races designated as cycling’s Grand Tours. The other two, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, take place in May and September, respectively. I think the word “Grand” is a euphemism for “grueling.” Each Grand Tour comprises 21 stages and traverses challenging terrain like the Alps and the Pyrénées mountain ranges, and sometimes puts the riders through days of extreme weather conditions. Hell for them, fun for us to watch!
The 2016 Tour de France begins on July 2nd with 22 teams of nine riders each. They will race over three consecutive weeks, with only two days of rest: one after Stage 9 and another after Stage 16. The winner will be the cyclist who has the lowest accumulated time over the three weeks.
In the USA, you can watch the live broadcast on NBCSN. For the complete schedule, click here.
Jerseys are awarded to the top riders in each of several categories, based on cumulative results, after each stage.
Most everyone knows that the yellow jersey (le maillot jaune) belongs to the man who, as of that day, has the lowest overall time (also known as the General Classification, or GC.) As a reward he gets to wear yellow for the next day’s stage. Said jersey also makes him easy to identify, allowing his competitors to keep an eye on him.
The green jersey is the province of the sprinters, the bigger guys who muscle their way to the finish line in a cluster of spokes and helmets. Not for the faint of heart, those sprint finishes! This jersey is awarded on a points basis, with opportunities to earn points at designated sprint sections of each stage. Usually the first four riders to pass through a sprint section earn points. Sprinters accumulate points throughout the three weeks of racing in the hopes of winning the green jersey on the final day.
The white jersey with red polka dots represents the King of the Mountains, so named for the climbers in the peloton who, hour after hour, haul themselves over the brutal and unforgiving mountain roads. Seemingly with ease. As with the sprints, designated climbs within each stage award points to the first several riders across the line, with riders accumulating points over the entirety of the race.
For young riders under 25 years of age, the white jersey is something to covet. Similar to the competition for the yellow jersey, which rewards the rider with the overall lowest time, the white jersey goes to the young rider with the lowest time.
Each day race organizers award one additional prize. It’s not a jersey, but a special recognition of the Most Aggressive Rider. The man who wins this distinction has the privilege of wearing a bright red race number on the back of his uniform the next day.
Team vs Individual
You might think of cycling as an individual sport and it is, to some degree. Each rider in the race is responsible for holding his own, dragging his bike over the finish line, if need be. But there’s much more to the sport than that. A well-balanced and cohesive team will be more successful over three weeks than an individual ever could be.
Every man on the team has a specific role. At the top of the ranks is the GC contender, the guy who has a real chance to win the overall yellow jersey. Pretty much everyone else on the team works to assure his safety, day in and day out. At the other end of the spectrum are the domestiques, often the younger, less experienced riders, who ferry supplies between the team car and their mates. In between, you have the sprinters and climbers who get their time in the limelight on particular stages that suit them.
But they all work together on the team time trial, when it’s critical for the whole group to ride well. Each team races against the clock, and they have to stay together. The team’s final time is calculated only after the fifth man crosses the finish, so it’s all for one, one for all.
Team strategy also plays an important (and exciting) part in the three weeks of racing. Select team members may be dispatched to chase a breakaway group of riders, or to help a GC contender pace his way back to the peloton after a mechanical problem. All of this teamwork pays off handsomely for the group that, at the end of the race, has the lowest accumulated time. They win the overall team competition.
Within each stage profile (see image below) are designated climbs, and each of these climbs has been categorized according to its difficulty, height, and gradient. Cycling identifies the “easiest” climbs as Category 4, followed by Categories 3, 2, and 1, each jump in category bringing with it significantly more difficult ascents. The worst of the worst are designated HC, which stands for Hors Catégorie in French, meaning they are beyond categorization. Enough said.
Among those favored to win the yellow jersey is England’s Chris Froome, whose 2015 Tour victory was both decisive and impressive. Others sure to be in the mix? Previous Tour victor Alberto Contador from Spain, Nairo Quintana from Colombia (last year’s runner-up,) and America’s own Tejay Vangarderen.
In the sprint category, you have to look for Peter Sagan (Slovakia,) who has won the green jersey multiple times and is always entertaining to watch. Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and others will surely look to pick up every point they can.
With the King of the Mountains, my personal favorite race within the race, I expect to see Nairo Quintana at the top of the podium. He is just unbelievable in the Alps!
Vive le Tour!
I hope this post has cleared up any questions you had about the Tour de France. And I hope you will uncork a bottle of something delicious and cheer the peloton as the race gets underway on Saturday, July 2nd!