The Excitement of the Tour de France

Feb 10, 2021

All endurance sports are exciting to watch - marathons, triathlons, cycling, swimming, cross country skiing, etc.  Hopefully this year, the Tokyo Olympics occur and we will have hours of exciting competition to watch.

One of my favorite competitions to watch each year is the Tour de France.  The cycling season is set to kick off in Australia in a few weeks.  And the Tour will start on June 26th, one week earlier than normal to not interfere with the Olympics.  If it is as exciting as last year, I can't wait.

For those unfamiliar with pro cycling or the Tour, here's a brief tutorial that will hopefully allow you to enjoy and appreciate the sport.

The Tour de France is the world’s largest annual sporting event. It consists of 22 teams of 9 riders totaling 198 cyclists.  Riders cover roughly 2200 miles over 21 stages in the span of 23 days.  The race creates excitement around the world.  Estimates are that 3.5 billon television viewers and over 12 million spectators line the streets (that is when we are not in a pandemic).

The course is different each year, but it always includes mountain days in the Alps and Pyrenees and a final celebratory ride into Paris.  The countryside is beautiful, historic, and sometimes treacherous.  The helicopter shots often display castles, churches, and artistic encouragement in farmers fields along the course.

Why is this such an exciting event?

There is so much strategy and action each day.  Riders are challenged by the shear amount of effort to ride over 100 miles per day on narrow roads, over mountains, down winding descents, over cobblestones, through hazardous weather conditions.  Every day they face the uncertainty of an accident or bike malfunction.  Every day they face new demands from their team leader, the course, and the competition.

The Super Bowl is a big deal.  But it is one hour of action consisting of less than 100 plays.

The Stanley Cup and the NBA Championships are the best of seven totaling a maximum of around 7 hours of action.

The tour is over 100 hours of surprise, intrigue, excitement, frustration, and enjoyment.  Around every turn, there is a chance that the entire race could change.  If there is a cross wind and the main bunch of riders (peloton) splits in two or one rider or one team gets separated from the main field, big time gaps could occur.  If someone has a mechanical issue or has an accident, the outcome of the race could change in a moment.  But sometimes against all odds, riders recover and regain contact with the peloton staying in contention for another day. 

There are several competitions within the race on each day's stage.  Each stage is a race with a winner.  At the end of each stage, there is an overall leader in the General Classification which looks at individual cumulative time.  There is a points leader in the King of the Mountain (KOM) competition, and a points leader in the Sprint competition.  There is also a young rider competition for riders under the age of 26 who rank highest in the general classification.  There is a winner chosen for being the most aggressive or combative rider making the day's stage exciting.  And there is a team competition which looks at the cumulative time of the first three finishers on each team.

Jerseys are given to the leaders in the various competitions.  The overall leader wears the yellow jersey.  The sprint leader gets the green jersey.  The KOM leader gets the polka dot jersey.  And the leader in the young rider competition gets the white jersey.

The overall leader or leader of the general classification is the rider with the lowest cumulative time.  Time bonuses are sometimes offered along the course for crossing a designated location first, second, or third.  Time bonuses subtract a few seconds from a rider’s cumulative time anywhere from 10 seconds to 1 second decided by the race organizers before the start of the tour.

Every day, every stage, teams and individuals are strategizing to achieve their goals.  Not all teams are strong enough to contend for the general classification so they may focus on the team competition, the sprint competition, or just crossing the finish line first in one stage.

Tour Defrance, Grand Départ

If you watch a few stages of the tour, you’ll notice a few things.  There are almost always a few riders who breakaway from the main field – the peloton – hoping to win the day's stage.  Succeeding is rare.  But you must feel for those lone riders who fight so hard to cross the finish line first while a herd of nearly 200 other riders are working together to take the lead from them just before the finish line. 

There are a lot of reasons for breaking away and trying to stay away.  The leaders get TV time for themselves and their sponsors.  They gain KOM points and Sprint points.  They have the possibility to earn a stage victory.  They could be staying ahead because their team leader plans to surge away from the peloton and needs someone to draft off of before reaching the finish. 

Riders often go on the attack trying to separate from the peloton to gain an advantage over their competition.  Sometimes you will see riders weaving back and forth along the road trying to make it difficult for riders to follow behind in their slipstream.  Sometimes you will see riders slowing down and looking over their shoulder trying to anticipate when someone drafting off them will accelerate with an attack.

Some riders have incredible finishing speed.  These are the Sprinters.  They can accelerate at the end of a stage increasing their power output to well over 1,000 watts for a short amount of time and then throw their arms forward lunging their bike toward the finish line.  

As riders in the peloton approach a finish on a flat stage, the teams form a lead out train leading their team leader or best sprinter toward the front to give them a chance to whip around, kick in a massive surge, and hopefully take the stage victory.

Some riders are strongest climbing mountains.  They attack in the mountains to gain time on their opponents.  It is thrilling to watch the gamesmanship as one person attacks and others recover.  Then someone counterattacks and the lead goes back and forth as riders hit the wall and can no longer keep the pace and start losing ground.

The team members other than the leader are called “domestiques”.  They often take the lead in the wind, give up their bike if the team leader has a mechanical issue, drive to the front of the pack to lead out before a sprint finish, set the pace so that other teams work harder to separate from the peloton, carry bottles and food for others on the team, slow down to wait for the team leader to pull them back to the peloton.  The domestiques are vital to the success of the team leader.  They get very little glory, and they pour everything into each days race while the team leader sometimes stays in the draft conserving energy waiting for the right stage and the right moment to attack.

Supporting the team leader is not the only role of the domestiques.  They are also critical in the team time trial.  This is a stage of the race where each team starts a few minutes apart and race to the finish line to see which team has the best time.  On these stages, the riders often ride time trial bikes which are what most triathletes ride.  The team members rotate taking the lead to maximize speed and conserve energy.  The time finish of a team time trial is based on the finish time of the fourth team member.  Of the nine team members that start, some can push beyond their limits and eventually fall off before the finish.  But the stronger team members cannot push so hard that the fourth rider falls off.  So, they may slow down if that starts to happen.

There is also an individual time trial which let's each rider show their strength racing solo.

Team support vehicles follow the riders and provide bottles, food, medical support, and mechanical support.  They carry spare bicycles and spare wheels.  They are experts at quickly exchanging bikes or wheels just like NASCAR pit crews are with cars.

When a support car comes along side a rider, it is not uncommon for the driver to offer a bottle.  Sometimes, the rider and the driver hold onto the bottle together for a few seconds giving the rider a little advantage.  This is called the “sticky bottle” and if held too long could cause the team to be penalized.

Under normal circumstances, the riders are only allowed to draft off other cyclists.  But there is an unwritten rule in professional cycling that if someone has a mechanical issue or accident, they can draft off any of the team cars as they weave in and around trying to make their way back to the peloton.  Out of respect and courtesy, the team cars of all teams cooperate and permit this to help the rider not lose ground based on bad luck.

What are some of the rules?

There are a lot of rules the teams must follow.  There are rules about the size and weight of the bikes.  There are rules about where the team support vehicles can provide support.  Here are some of the other rules governed by the UCI – international cycling union:

  • No more than 2 stages can exceed 240 km which is 149 miles.
  • The maximum distance for a time trial is 60 km or 37 miles.
  • Riders must finish a stage within a certain time based on the average speed of the stage and the type of stage.  This is to avoid domestique riders from sandbagging and saving strength for another day.  For example, if a stage is hilly and the speed is slow – let’s say the average is 19 mph, then any riders not averaging at least 18 mph may be eliminated from the rest of the race.  Over a 130-mile stage, there could be a lot of time between the winner, the average paced rider, and those who are disqualified.  Team managers must estimate the average speed and figure out if riders are in jeopardy of being disqualified.
  • All riders in a bunch are given the same stage finish time when they cross the finish line until there is a gap of over 3 second between two riders.  Riders not in a group who cross less than 1 second apart will have the same time.
  • Regardless of the number of points earned, a rider must finish stage 21 in Paris to be awarded an overall winner in any of the competitions
  • If a wreck occurs in the last 3 kilometers of a non-summit finish, the riders affected will be credited with the same time as those not affected by the accident.  The sprint finishes can be quite exciting and dangerous as riders are bumping elbows and navigating for the optimal position.
  • If a group of riders are split because of a train, draw bridge, avalanche, or some other non-cycling reason, the first part of the group will be slowed down or stopped to allow the delayed riders to rejoin the group.

Was this year’s Tour exciting?

The 2020 tour was awesome.  Five different riders wore the yellow jersey throughout the event.  Primoz Roglic from team Jumbo Vismo took the lead in stage 9 and held it until stage 20 when young rider Tadej Pogacar from team UAE crushed the individual time trial, moved from second place into first, and went on to ride into Paris for the win.  Pogacar ended up winning the GC yellow jersey, the KOM polka dot jersey, and the Young Rider white jersey.  He will be exciting to watch in the years to come.

In the sprint competition, my favorite rider Peter Sagan, couldn’t keep up with Sam Bennett. Sagan holds the record for the most Tour green jerseys winning seven so far.  He is also known for doing a one-handed and even a no-handed wheelie on his road bike.  Check out this YouTube video.  Impressive.   

 Image result for peter sagan wheelie

What about doping in cycling?

There have been a lot of issues with performance enhancing drugs in cycling.  Riders have found ways to avoid being caught.  It is cheating whether 1 person or all 198 riders are doing it.  I try not to think about this aspect of the sport.  The effort the riders exert, the bike handling skills they display, the risks they take, are all impressive. 

What do the riders do when they are not racing?

Often you will see riders spinning before the start of a race to warm up their legs and raise the heartrate.  Some teams have their own massage therapists, nurses, nutritionists, chefs, drivers, etc.  After each stage, they discuss the strategy for the next stage, and they may have to travel to the next day’s starting location.  There is very little rest for these athletes.  Good thing they are given two rest days.


Watching Professional cycling can be like watching professional golf.  There are times when all the key golfers are hitting the same strokes and the score stays close.  Then someone makes a mistake.  Someone takes a risk.  Someone makes an incredible shot.  Someone takes the lead.  Someone steals the lead.  And eventually someone wins the prize.  Cycling is the same way.  Just around the next corner is a surprise that could change the outcome of the entire event.  The Tour de France is so much more exciting than the championships of other sports.  But I’ll still be excited when my Miami Dolphins finally win another Super Bowl.

When writing the blog, I thought about the following scripture from 2 Timothy 2:4-5

No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. 

In the tour, the domestiques focus on what the leader needs.  The team leader should share the glory with the domestiques because without them, winning is impossible.  All the riders must obey the rules in order to be crowned in Paris.

In life, we must follow the direction of our leader – our heavenly Father.  We do not have to work hard to please Him.  But we are expected to live a life that leads others to the saving knowledge of His son Jesus.  And there is no better prize than knowing Him and being known by Him.


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