Everything You Need to Know About the Tour de France

Fietsrit

, by Max Leonard

Photography by: A.S.O. / Charly Lopez

In just a few short weeks, the men’s pro peloton will take to the roads of France (and Italy too, this year) for the 111th edition of the Tour de France. If you’re new to the sport, that’s a lot to catch up on – so here’s our beginner’s guide to the history and the present of the world’s greatest cycle race.

The origins of the Tour de France

The first Tour de France took place in 1903, dreamed up as a publicity stunt for an ailing sports newspaper, L’Auto, by its editor, Henri Desgrange, and his assistant Géo Lefèvre. At that time, six-day racing in the velodrome was incredibly popular, and road races tended to be very long: Bordeaux–Paris was around 560km / 348 mi and Paris–Brest–Paris a whole lot longer at around 1200km / 745 mi. The new Tour de France was six stages in total, held concurrently over 15 days and the longest stage, from Nantes to Paris was 471km / 293 mi.

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Beforehand, nobody was sure that the idea of multi-stage road racing would take off, but it was an instant success with the French public. The race started and ended in Paris, and the overall title was won by pre-race favourite Maurice Garin. Garin also won the 1904 edition, which was contested over the same course, but was subsequently disqualified and stripped of his win – the rumour is that Garin and several other top riders cheated and took a train!

For many years, the race ended at the Parc des Princes velodrome in the north of Paris, but in 1975 a finish on the Champs-Élysées was introduced, and that has become traditional.

The Tour's now traditional finish line, on the Champs-Élysées, was introduced in 1975. Photography by: A.S.O. / Pauline Ballet

The Mountains of the Tour de France

While the very early races took on some formidable climbs by any standards, the real high mountains did not make an appearance until 1910. That year, the race organizers optimistically included some Pyreneen passes on the route, including the now-classic Tourmalet, now measured as a 17.1 km / 10.63 mi climb at an average of 7.3%, on what was then not much more than a logging track. Based on the success of that, the Col du Galibier – a moody and menacing 2,645m / 8678 ft tall pass was added in 1911. The famous rocky summit of Mont Ventoux in Provence was introduced in 1951, and Alpe d’Huez, now the scene of the largest fan party, in 1952.

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Over the years, gradually, climbing – rather than just out-and-out endurance – became more important to the race. The first Pyreneen stage in 1910 was 326km / 204 mi long and included five mountain passes. Even in the 1980s, mountain stages might have been 200 kilometers / 125 mi or more; these days, a mountain stage is more likely to be 160km / 100 mi, and designed to provoke explosive, exciting racing. However, post-war, the format has remained relatively stable: 21 days racing around France, ending in Paris but often starting elsewhere (even in a neighboring country); with the majority of France being covered, and always a visit to the Pyrenees and the Alps. A Tour without one of the classic climbs is unheard of, and if, say, Mont Ventoux, doesn’t get included for a long run of years, then there will be a popular outcry.

In 2024, because of the Olympic Games in Paris, the Tour is finishing outside the capital for the first time – in Nice in south-eastern France.

Mont Ventoux is a fan favorite on the Tour de France. Photography by: A.S.O / Charly Lopez

The Tour de France Teams

In the earliest Tours, riders were competing solo and any help between them was prohibited. However, even in the 1900s, bicycle manufacturers sponsored the best riders, and it didn’t take long before loose alliances between them began to be forged – much to the organizer’s chagrin. To Desgrange, this collaboration didn’t seem like a pure or ‘fair’ test of strength.

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To try to combat the power of the manufacturers, for much of the twentieth century the race was run with national teams, and France even had several regional outfits. But in 1962 the race returned definitively to the trade-team format we know today, with large commercial sponsors (or even now national entities) giving teams their money and identity. For the past few years, there have been 22 teams at the Tour with eight riders each, and, according to its talents, each team’s objectives may be very different.

There are 22 teams with 8 riders each at the Tour de France. Photography by: A.S.O. / Charly_Lopez

The race for the Yellow Jersey

The biggest prize at the Tour has always been the General Classification (GC) – rewarding the rider who records the lowest cumulative time in all the stages over the whole Tour. Since 1919, the GC leader has been denoted by the yellow jersey (maillot jaune) they wear each day, and the ultimate objective is to be wearing the yellow jersey on the final podium in Paris. Small time bonuses on the GC are often awarded mid-race, either at the top of climbs or at intermediate sprint points.

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Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain have won the most Tours, with five each. In 1999, Lance Armstrong began a record-breaking run of seven consecutive Tour wins but was stripped of his titles in 2012 for doping offenses.

However, aside from the GC, each day’s stage is a separate race in its own right, and a stage win at the Tour can be the pinnacle of a rider’s career. How any given stage plays out depends on the terrain. Usually, the whole bunch will set off together as one big ‘peloton’, while a few riders try to work together to establish a breakaway group that will try to build up a big enough lead to contest the stage win. On flat stages, the peloton will generally catch the breakaway and the finish will be a bunch sprint. Rolling stages are the territory of the powerful riders known as puncheurs, while days with multiple smaller obstacles may favor a breakaway specialist.

Jonas Vingegaard has won the Tour de France General Classification - and the Maillot Jaune - for the past two years (2022 and 2023). Photography by: A.S.O. / Pauline_Ballet

Each day, every team will head out with a plan and try to execute it, with riders working together to achieve the goal: helping their GC target finish strongly, for example, setting up their climber for the final climb, or leading out their sprinter in the closing kilometers. Riders who sacrifice their personal ambitions or standing for the team goal are known as domestiques. Their job can be absolutely vital, and yet without the glory of the star riders their strength, dedication, and tactical awareness can sometimes go unrecognized.

That may sound a little formulaic, but the best thing about bike racing is its unpredictability. There’s an alchemy in how the efforts of 196 racers with differing objectives combine with the unexpected challenges of the road, and a sprinkling of human strength and weakness, to make something exciting and unexpected happen.

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The Polka-Dot, Green, and White Jerseys at the Tour de France

In addition to the GC, there are three other important in-race competitions. The mountain classification is given to the rider who gains the most points for reaching mountain summits first. It first came into being in the 1930s but is now characterized by the distinctive polka-dot jersey, which dates from the 1970s when the classification was sponsored by a chocolate brand. All of the significant climbs in each Tour are categorized, with 4 being the smallest and HC (hors catégorie or ‘beyond categorization’) the largest. The bigger the summit, the more points awarded to the first man over, with a descending amount given to a select number after him. With the tendency towards summit finishes – which attract a premium number of points – in recent years the yellow jersey has often also won the polka-dot jersey.

The polka-dot jersey is worn by the rider who reaches the most mountain summits first. Photography by: A.S.O. / Charly_Lopez

The green jersey, meanwhile, is often known as the sprinters’ jersey, but is properly speaking the points jersey. It goes to the rider who accrues the most points, at stage finishes on flatter days and at intermediate sprint points – of which there is always at least one every day. Again, like the mountains jersey, a set number is awarded to the first man, and lesser amounts to the riders after him. Though it is often won by a ‘pure’ sprinter, the most successful rider in the history of the green jersey is Peter Sagan, a recently retired superstar Slovakian whose skill and consistency across the whole Tour (including the hillier stages) made up for what he lacked in top-end speed for the really flat days.

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Finally, the white jersey is awarded to the best young rider, under 25 years old when that year’s Tour starts. However, given the trend of younger and younger riders winning the Tour, the yellow jersey and the white jersey can often be the same guy.

The green jersey is awarded to the rider who accrues the most points during the race. Peter Sagan was the most successful rider in this respect in Tour history. Photography by: A.S.O. / Alex Broadway

The Spectators at the Tour de France

In terms of the number of live attendees, the Tour de France is the biggest sporting event in the world. Because it takes place on public roads, unless you have a VIP hospitality package right at the finish line, it is free to watch. If the Tour is passing through a village, the whole population will take to the streets for barbecues, wine, and music. Mountain stages, too, can be very rewarding for spectators, with huge crowds – into the hundreds of thousands – lining the road for an all-day (and sometimes all-night) party, waiting for the helicopters to start flying overhead, the team cars to whizz past and finally the riders to slowly ascend – all surrounded by dramatic scenery. If you ever get the chance, it’s highly recommended.

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However, watching on TV is in some ways better! With the complexity of the different competitions, the multiple races-within-a-race, and the different story arcs ranging from the single day’s result to the whole three-week affair, the amount of tension and intrigue in a good Tour de France can be mind-blowing.

The Tour de France is the most watched in-person sport event in the world. Photography by: A.S.O / Pauline Ballet

Yes, on slow days, you might get to know far more about chateaux, vineyards, and local cheeses than you thought you needed to, but even that can be fun. The Tour has often been described as one big advert for the French tourist board, and watching the countryside change over the course of the race – plus those amazing helicopter shots of riders in the mountains – is a real feast.

So put a date in your diary, and here’s to hoping for a vintage Tour de France 2024.

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