Tour de France 2012 – A beginner’s guide
So it’s almost that time of year again. The sun is shining intermittently, new sponsors have been announced and legs have been shaved. It’s time for the annual whirlwind of emotions that is the Tour de France.
The 2012 Tour starts in Liege and winds it’s 3947km journey across France for 3 energy sapping weeks, culminating in the traditional parade stage and sprint on the¬†Champs-Elys√©es¬†in Paris. The 22 selected teams will each bring 9 riders, all of whom will me vying for glory, either personal or for a team leader. On the 22nd of July one rider will stand atop the podium in Paris having completed and won an incredible sporting feat, which is widely accepted as the toughest race in the world.
This ‘Beginners Guide to the Tour de France’ ¬†is aimed at giving an introduction to the wonderful world of the Tour de France and covers the route, riders, gear and a little bit of the tour’s extensive history.
The first Tour was staged in 1903, the route took in 6 stages, starting and finishing again in Paris and was won by Frenchman Maurice Garin, with an average speed of 25kmph. Since its inception, the Tour has grown continually to the global spectacle that we see today. The introduction of the Pyranees and¬†subsequently¬†the Alps heralded the beginning of the modern Tour route.
Yellow is¬†synonymous¬†with the Tour de France. The rider who has completed the route in the shortest amount of time at the end of the previous days stage wears the yellow jersey or maillot jaune¬†of the overall race leader. This was first introduced in 1919, yellow was used because the Tour’s sponsor at the time,¬†L’Auto,¬†was printed on yellow paper.
There are 3 more classifications who’s leaders wear distinct jerseys. The leader of the young riders competition sports a white jersey; this competition is identical to the competition for yellow, but only those riders under the age of 26 are eligible. The green points jersey is worn by the rider who has accumulated the most number of points: these points are awarded at stage finishes depending on riders position, for flat stages the winner¬†receives¬†45 points, 35 for second, 30 for third and so on. The jersey is won almost exclusively by sprinters as there are more points¬†available¬†for sprint stages. The final classification is the mountain points competition, the leader wears a white jersey with red¬†dots. Every classified climb along the route holds points for the first riders to summit. The harder the climb, the more points¬†available. This classification is often won by a climber who slips out of contention for the yellow or white jersey in the early stages – this leaves them to make breakaways and accumulate points freely.
The colourful history of the Tour is one of the aspects of the race which make it the primary goal of the world’s best riders. Teams are selected based on their world rankings. The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale)¬†selects 18 “World Tour” teams at the end of every season, all of whom get automatic inclusion into the Tour; the other 4 teams are selected by the Tour organisers, ASO. “Wildcard” teams fight for selection throughout the earlier races in the year and are selected on merit as well as the strength of their teams, sponsors and ability to perform well and ignite the race. This years selected teams are French teams Europcar, Cofidis and Saur-Sojasun and Dutch team Argos-Shimano.
This years route features 20 stages, and the largest number of time trials that we’ve seen in recent years. With pre-race favourite Andy Schleck out of the race, it is likely to be a fight between Aussi Cadel Evans and a seemingly unbeatable Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins has showed incredible form this year, winning 4 high calibre stage races throughout the year, including Paris-Nice – the so called “mini-Tour de France”.
Cadel Evans won the Tour last year on the final time trial taking the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck on the last competitive day of racing. ¬†He’ll be wanting to capitalise on Wiggins’ media commitments by staying under the radar and relaxed, and letting his legs do the talking. Wiggins has been lauded as a great hope for British Cycling and will doubtless live up to this, as things stand he may just become the first ever British Tour de France champion on July 22nd.
It’s not just about the riders at the Tour – it takes huge teams of people and a militarian planning exercise and logistical operation to compete in the Tour. Whilst the riders get off their bikes at the end of a stage and head for showers, massages and dinner, their dedicated support staff work round the clock to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
Each rider will have at least 2 race bikes at the Tour, teams normally¬†receive¬†new bikes for the TdF, often with unique paintwork or artistry on them to inspire the riders, some of last years can be seen here. These bikes require constant maintenance, so a team of up to 7 mechanics work on them night and day. Soigneurs¬†(carers) look after the riders, giving them massages to relieve pain and ease recovery, providing and assembling the riders individual¬†nutritional¬†needs and washing their kit.
Sport directors,¬†performance¬†directors, race mechanics and bus drivers all play a role as well. Each of their jobs is as vital to a team’s success as the training and tactics that go into racing itself. Team Orica-Greenedge’s fantastic Backstage Pass series gives a great insight into the internal workings of a top level professional cycling team.
The bikes of the Tour are the centre of media attention, and like all gear nuts, I’m always hanging on every word on the newest frame design or wheelset. Most bike companies produce a number of different frames, the current trade is to have an aerodynamic frame for flat stages, a super lightweight frame for mountain stages and a super aerodynamic time trial frame. The frames are built up with top of the range groupsets, Shimano’s Dura-Ace electronic Di2 groupset faces off against SRAM’s Red groupset and Campagnolo’s Super Record EPS electronic offering. Wheelsets differ from aerodynamic to lightweight depending on the stage profile, mechanics and riders consult extensively about equipment choices. Bike must exceed the UCI weight limit of 6.9kg and mechanics often have to add lead weights to increase the weight above this limit. I did a quick estimate of the price of Team Sky’s Pinarello Dogma 2 and it topped a whopping ¬£7,000 for frame and groupset alone (Sky’s choice of build kit and wheels vary dramatically).
With so much British interest this year, the 2012 Tour is set to be a cracker! Britain’s World Road Race Champion and current green jersey winner, Mark Cavendish, is looking to bag as many stage wins as possible again, and Bradley Wiggins will be lighting it up at the front end of the general classification (GC) race and looking to take home the yellow jersey!
I hope that gives a good overall introduction to the Tour, if you find yourself drawn in ITV4 and Eurosport both provide excellent coverage of the Tour. If you’d like to know more don’t hesitate to ask a question below in the comments section!