How do you win? Why do they do it? Should I watch it? What’s it all about? We answer your Tour de France questions
The Tour de France, the world’s most famous bicycle race, is beginning in Yorkshire on Saturday July 5, and the three-day British leg will end on the Mall in London on Monday July 7.
It’s not an overstatement to say that it is going to be a massive deal. It is, in fact, the world’s largest annual sporting event. It’s bigger than any little tennis competition in south west London, or the odd cricket scrap between Australia and England, and it certainly doesn’t get called off due to a bit of rain.
In fact, le Tour, as the French know it, is broadcast in more than 188 countries and attracts a worldwide TV audience of 3.5 billion people annually. That’s around half the population of the world.
In London alone, over a million spectators are expected to line the streets. This is no small bike race.
But perhaps you’re not sure what all the fuss is about. Lycra? Sweaty men? Shaved legs? It all sounds a bit peculiar. But if you know a bit about what’s going on, it suddenly makes a strange sort of sense.
So if you don’t know your bidon from your peloton, then read on, and we can get you up to speed quicker than a shot of EPO.
One reason why people go a bit crazy around the Tour is the sheer scale of the thing. The race covers an average of 3,500 kilometres in distance. That’s 2,174 miles, including a few stages in which competitors cycle UP THE ALPS. These guys are not normal. Then they come down the Alps again at speeds of up to 75mph.
This madness has been going on ever since 1903 when a young sports journalist and cycling enthusiast named Géo Lefèvre suggested a three-week-long bike race as a ruse to sell more newspapers. His idea worked. In two years, Lefèvre more than doubled the circulation of his paper l’Auto, and the Tour has happened every year since (excluding during the First and Second World Wars).
How does it work?
On paper, the Tour de France is simple. It runs almost every day for three weeks, and the rider who completes all the stages in the lowest combined time is the winner. In reality, winning this event is anything but simple. There are always plenty of crashes, unpredictable conditions and the odd bit of team treachery, so until the riders cross the finish line in Paris, the outcome is never certain.
Every day, the person with the lowest time has the honour of wearing the yellow jersey, or the maillot jaune, as it’s known in France. This is the most important shirt of the competition, but you can also watch out for the iconic red polka-dot jersey that indicates the wonderfully named “King of the Mountains” for the nutter who can cycle up mountains the fastest.
Then there’s the green jersey, AKA the points jersey, for the fastest sprinters. “Sprinting” on a bicycle means hitting speeds of up to 80kmh – that’s 50mph – on the flat. This usually occurs at the end of a reasonably flat stage, when a huge group of cyclists are aiming to hit the finish line first. It’s a precarious jumble of elbows, spinning legs and spokes, and is when the most spectacular (and dangerous) crashes occur.
Show off your knowledge of the Tour de France by talking about it in terms of teams. The modern race is very much a team sport. Each team usually has one or two riders vying for a particular jersey, and all the members of the team are essentially slaves to these heroes who will eventually take all the glory. Being a team member means riding in front of your team leader to keep them out of the wind, dropping back to the team car to collect bottles (bidons) of water and food, and then being last in the queue for a massage back at the hotel.
The British riders to look out for
After years of cycling ignominy, Britain has bounded into the world of cycling. Even the most committed hermits must be aware of the name Bradley Wiggins. The first British Tour de France winner isn’t riding this year unfortunately, so facial hair will be on a decidedly less epic scale, but our second winner, Chris Froome, is defending his title.
Also in the peloton is the sprinter Mark Cavendish, or the “Manx Missile”, from the Isle of Man, who has won 25 separate stages of the Tour de France in his career so far (the third most in history).
The UK is also fielding the Welshman Geraint Thomas, who broke his pelvis early in last year’s Tour, but finished it nonetheless, and also Tour de France veteran, Scotland’s David Millar, who at 37 is expected to make this his last Tour.
Where to watch it
At the roadside obviously! The third stage of the Tour begins in Cambridge and will wind its way down past Braintree and Chelmsford in Essex, to come into London via Epping Forest. The riders will then pass through the Olympic Park, and finish up on the tree-lined avenue of the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. This will be a fast stage with average speeds predicted to be at around 47kmh. Riders are due to hit the Mall sometime between 3.30pm and 4.00pm on Monday 7 July.
In addition to seeing the Tour in the flesh, there are plenty of opportunities to watch it on the big screen. The organisers are putting up huge screens in Green Park, Trafalgar Square and in the Olympic Park in Stratford.
ITV 4 will be broadcasting the action live, if you don’t like other people and want to watch from the privacy of your own home.
But one of the best options for soaking up the sheer excitement of the race is at one of London’s growing number of cycling-themed cafés where they’ll be screening the race. So if you fancy something slightly different, then try to get a good spot at bars including:
Look Mum No Hands, 49 Old St, London EC1V 9HX
Rapha Cycle Club, 85 Brewer St, London W1F 9ZN
Cycle PS, 146-148 Newington Butts, Kennington, SE11 4RN And 41 Camberwell Church Street, Camberwell, SE5 8TR
Peloton & Co. 4 Market Street, Spitalfields, London E1 6DT
Otherwise, rage at the barman in your local pub until he either switches over the channel from the football World Cup, or decides to kick you out.
Any other suggestions for where to watch? Let us know on Twitter via @LondonlovesBiz or @Harry_Cockburn
*** Update on Monday June 30th. David Millar has been “withdrawn” by his team, bringing the number of Britons in the race slightly lower.