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The Tour de France

Image result for Tour de France

Most people know the Tour de France is a bicycle race that takes place in France, and that's about it. In fact, that is precisely all I knew about the Tour de France until last summer when I got hooked on it. My goal is for you to get hooked on it as well or at least come away from reading this post with some degree of understanding of what the race is.

In case you didn't know, La Grande Boucle (the Tour's nickname, meaning "the big loop") happens to be going on right now, and will be going on for just about the next two weeks. So if you've ever had any interest in the race whatsoever, now is the time to tune-in and at least attempt to get sucked-in. First, let me help you out with this (very) beginners guide to the Tour de France:

What You Need to Know About the Tour de France (the absolute basics):

  • The full Tour de France is 3,500 km (2,200 mi) long
  • The race is completed in 21 phases or "stages" that take place throughout France; one stage is completed per day, with usually two rest days spread throughout the entire three week period, thus the whole shebang takes 23 days to complete
  • Stages are around 160 km (100 mi) each, give or take, and on average take about four to five hours to complete, depending on length and difficulty
  • Riders start each stage together and complete each stage within the day allotted (one friend recently asked me if riders can "cheat" by riding ahead at night. The answer is No.), meaning that if, let's say, Stage 1 were from New York City to Philadelphia (just to put it in U.S. terms), all the riders would start in New York City that day, and finish in Philadelphia. The next day, all the riders would start in Philadelphia and race to the next destination.
  • The finishing destination of one stage is rarely the starting destination of the following stage; meaning that, after finishing a stage, the riders and their teams have to travel to the starting point of the next day's stage, occasionally its so far away they have to fly there.
  • There are usually between 20 - 22 teams of riders competing in the Tour, with each team being composed of nine riders
  • The rider with the fastest race time gets to wear the maillot jaune or yellow jersey during competition, which signifies him as the overall leader of the race even if he is not currently or has never been the actual physical "leader" of any one stage. Since this time is calculated cumulatively from the start of the first stage of the Tour de France, through to the 21st stage, a rider can hold the yellow jersey (even win the entire TdF) and never have won a single stage of the race
Interesting Things You May Want to Know to Impress People:

  • The first TdF took place in 1903
  • The course of the race changes each year, visiting different cities and different routes, but the TdF always finishes on the Champs Elysees in Paris
  • Each year the course supposedly alternates between a clockwise and counter-clockwise circuit through France; this I don't quite understand because this year's race, for example, seems to snake-through France both clockwise and counter-clockwise, so...IDK.
  • The race almost always takes riders through one or more of France's bordering countries at some point. This year the Tour started in Germany and cut through Belgium and Luxembourg before heading into France
  • In addition to the yellow jersey, there is also the green jersey, for the overall "points" leader, the polka dot jersey, for the "king of the mountains," and the white jersey, worn by the best-placed rider under the age of 26. There are also "Best Team" and "Most Aggressive Rider" competitions throughout the race.
  • Throughout much of the race, there are groups of "leaders," which can be anywhere from 1-10 riders grouped together and spread around the course; however, the bulk of the riders (hundreds of them at a time) form what is called the "peloton." In fact, if you know one thing about the Tour de France, know what the peloton is. Basically, it's the big group of riders that you see on TV, riding like a swarm of bees, altogether. In order for a rider to win a stage, he has to break away from this group, which is very difficult because the peleton is often 2:00 or more behind the leaders. 
Image result for the peloton

Why You Should Watch:

  • The Tour de France is as much a "tour" of France for the bike riders as it is for the television spectator. Thanks to the incredible TV coverage of this spectacle, you will be treated to some of the greatest scenery France has to offer. Mountains, meadows, lakes, rivers, castles, small villages clinging to the sides of cliffs, ancient cathedrals, etc. etc. I've seen more of France by watching this race than I could possibly hope to see in five lifetimes.
  • The specatators along the sides of the course. The TdF is that unique sporting event in which the spectators get so close to the event, they very often actually take part in it, much to (I'm sure) the chagrin of the riders. Fans throughout France stand right along the sides of the roads, and in some places these are narrow roads. I've seen fans actually patting riders on the back, getting a little too exhuberant and getting elbowed out of the way, I even -- just today -- saw some fans help a rider who had fallen off his bike by giving him a push to get started. 
  • International competitions just have a certain cache about them, the Olympics and the World Cup are prime examples. There's something so much more compelling about watching people from different countries competing against each other and watching their different styles, etc.
  • If you watch long enough and consistently enough, you get to become familiar with all sorts of characters you never knew before. A week ago I had no idea who Fabio Aru, Marcel Kittle, Lilian Calmejane, or Warren Baguil were...but now they're like old friends. 
  • Oh yeah...the actual race itself. Once you understand it and get into it, once you see how hard the riders are working, once you start to appreciate the teamwork that goes on between the riders, even among those on different'll see that it's like 21 life-or-death races in a row. I inevitably find myself standing up for the final 5 km, without even realizing it. It's that exciting. 
The only big drawback to watching the Tour de France is that most of the race stages take place during weekday mornings. So unless you have a TV in your cubicle, a friendly boss, or work from home, it's going to be difficult (nay impossible) for you to watch most of the Tour de France; however, there are always the Saturday and Sunday stages which should be enough to whet your appetite. I say give it one or two dedicated mornings of viewership. And if it still doesn't appeal to you, heck with it. Maybe you learned something.

My friend Shannon Browning, an Australian, once described the sport of cricket like this: "It's like counting down from 1,000; you can't help but get really excited when you reach 10." That's a decent way to describe watching the Tour de France. At the beginning of a stage, the race is usually not that exciting. You keep an eye on it while you fold your laundry or make some coffee (or write on your blog), and while the riders are all feeling things out, settling into their places, etc. But then, about 80 - 100 km to go, you start paying a little more attention. Maybe there's an intense climb or a steep decent, something to catch your eye. And before you know it, you're sucked-in for the duration, and will likely see -- every time -- something you've never seen before and will find yourself standing up cheering the leaders across the finish. 


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