This time of the year always seems to sneak up on me, and I absolutely love it.
23 days of sheer blood, guts and tears, determination, bravery, heroes, villains; Le Tour de France has it all.
It can be alarming for newcomers. Do the cyclists compete as individuals, or as teams? Why are there four different coloured jerseys to fight over? Why can it be that the person who finishes first on the last day, hasn’t won the race overall?
I got interested in Le Tour in one of the strangest possible ways. It wasn’t even through watching the cycling. It was through reading a chick lit book titled ‘Cat’ written by Freya North. Cat, the main protagonist is a budding sports journalist and she is given Le Tour to follow. I was dropped quite simply into the most amazing world of cycling, and once you understand the basics of Le Tour it soon becomes nothing but addictive!
The Yellow Jersey – the maillot jaune. This is the shirt worn by the rider who has been cycling for the least amount of time over the duration of the race. It is not individual stage winners that often wear this as cyclists often aim to win one stage of the tour, but then drop back down to the back of the pack. The Yellow Jersey is the hardest to win and can be worn by many different riders over the course of the race. To put it simply to win this shirt you have to have it all; the sprints, the time trials and the skill in the mountains. Winning this jersey is one of sports greatest achievements.
The Green Jersey – This shirt belongs to the sprint king. All stages of Le Tour de France (excepting the time trials) is made up of intermediate sprint points (with points awarded from 1st to 15th) as well as big points awarded for the stage finishes, where the first cyclist to cross the line and gain a stage win gets the biggest points haul (points awarded vary on whether it’s a flat, intermediate or mountain stage). The Green Jersey is generally won one of two ways; winning enough stages to get the shirt outright OR finishing high up enough in the sprints, whether stage endings or intermediates to build up a consistent amount of points over the duration of the race.
The Polka Dot Jersey – This jersey is worn and won buy the King of the Mountains. As the race winds it’s way through the mountains, they go through different categories of mountains ranging from 4 up to 1 (with one being the hardest). Points are awarded according the level of difficulty for those riders that can reach the summits and checkpoints first.
The White Jersey – This shirt is worn by the rider aged under 26 who is highest up in the General Classification standings (the GC), essentially the youngest rider under 26 who has been cycling for the shortest amount of time over the duration of the race.
Next we have the teams. These are usually made up of individuals with unique qualities; sprinters, mountain riders, time trialists, work horses and always one with a GC contender i.e. a yellow jersey prospect. All teams will play to their strengths, whether it be to arrange for their sprinter to have the best shot at the Green Jersey or to work together to provide their Yellow Jersey prospect with the best possible chance of winning the shirt. Make no mistake those who do go on to win the coveted maillot jeune can never do it without the help and sacrifice of their team mates.
And a note about the stages – there is a cut off point. Once the first rider crosses a line a clock will start and the remaining riders will have a set time limit in which to finish the stage. Finish outside that time and you are disqualified. This usually poses the most problem in the mountains where so many of the riders struggle, yet a group of riders (usually the sprinters!) form up a large pack at the back of the race (sometimes referred to as the autobus). Because there are so many there it is impossible for organisers to disqualify them, and it allows the sprinters to save as much energy as possible for the sprint stages to come.
So there we have it (although I do think that’s come across as far more confusing as I mean it to!).
Welcome to 23 days of tactics, rivalry, extreme effort and just sheer and unbelievable mental behaviour. The highlights for me: the sprint finishes, individual breakaways, the effort in the mountains and the sheer terrifying speed in which these crazy yet utterly admirable sportsmen descend them.
I’m all set for the drama, the worry, the passion, the crashes and the sheer addictiveness of watching athletes push themselves to the limit – and beyond.