Tour de France - A Race Primer by Bill Roach

As the first guest blogger for Iowa Bike Rides, Bill Roach has the kind of cycling experience others dream to have!  Bill is a former competitive cyclist who has pedaled countless miles around Iowa and abroad.  He currently works as a writer for the Indoor Cycling Association, a cycling instructor for the  YMCA of Greater Des Moines, and a certified personal trainer. 

I love his cycling classes. They are always the challenge I need.  Bill provides a great music playlist complementing the simulated ride.  His fantastic visualization techniques helps me perform at my best.  He always takes the time to welcome newcomers and makes sure their bike is fitted correctly.   Bill can be found at the YMCA Healthy Living Center on Mondays and Wednesdays and the Waukee YMCA on Thursdays.  

Each month Bill publishes a newsletter addressing the topics of indoor cycling and fitness training.  With the most famous race in cycling just around the corner, he is sharing his personal primer for understanding the race and  what to look for while watching.

To contact Bill or subscribe to his newsletter, email him at bill.roach@mchsi.com


Every year my classes in July simulate the previous few days on the Tour de France.  I will have an update during each class and the class profiles will correspond to the race as it unfolds over the three weeks.

Here’s your preview of this year’s tour, July 5 -27.  First, I will try to offer a general understanding of how to watch the race.  And, then, I will offer my specifics for watching this year’s contest.

Photo: letour.com

Photo: letour.com

The Tour is the third most popular sporting event in the world.   It is exceeded in viewership only by the Olympics and World Cup Soccer.  You just can’t imagine the pandemonium of up to 15 million people lining the roads of France.  And those are just the people watching in person!

In America, understandably, we are most interested when an American is a contender.   After decades when no American even raced in the Tour, a few brave Americans began making their way to France in the 1980's.  Jacques Boyer was the first in 1981.  And two Americans have been dominant in their own era’s, Greg Lemond, winner in 1986, 1989 and 1990, and Lance Armstrong, who was thought to be the winner from 1999 through 2005 prior to his admission of doping on a massive scale.

I believe the Tour has “cleaned up” significantly, if not totally, in the new post-Armstrong era.  And as such that it again deserves our attention.

A Primer for The Tour 

Not one race but many.   I think one of the most important things to understand is that the Tour is many races within a race. It is not just a race for the fabled Yellow Jersey.

∙    General Classification (GC).   This is the one we all hear about.  The Yellow Jersey is awarded each day to the rider each day with the lowest cumulative time for the entire event.

∙    Sprinters.  The leader in this category wears a green jersey.  Along the way, points are awarded for the first finishers in the flat stages.  Riders in a close group arriving at the finish at the same approximate time are awarded the same finish time, but the first one to actually cross the line wins the points toward the best sprinter.  This contest results in furious sprints at breakneck speeds elbow-to-elbow and many of the tour’s crashes.  These are the tough guys of the tour.  A team with a contender for the green is usually surrounded by strong riders that can give him a lead out to build up a furious speed over the final hundred years.

∙    King of the Mountains.  This polk-a-dot jersey designates the rider who has won the most points as awarded at the top of the mountain climbs.

∙    Young Rider.  This white jersey is awarded to the highest place rider in GC who is under the age of 26.

∙    Most Aggressive Rider.  This award is awarded by race officials to the rider who does the most to stimulate aggressive riding in the race.  The rider is awarded a red number to wear on his jersey.

∙    Stages.  Each day is a race onto itself.  The winner of the day’s race is recognized on the podium.  Winning any day of the Tour is a prestigious win for a rider and for his sponsors but alas there is no jersey.  

∙    Team Classification.  This award is for the team with the lowest cumulative time for the entire team.  

An important implication of these multiple prizes is that different teams will be employing different strategies simultaneously.  Given these different goals, teams are in an ever-shifting set of alliances and competitions.  This is the fascination of the tour.  It is a big chess match played out at 25mph.  

Stages: Just like the teams have different goals, each day’s race is conducted on a different course and often in a different format.   This adds still more complexity.  

∙    Road Stages.  These are longer stages over mostly flatter roads.  These stages are often dominated by the big, strong riders and often finish in a sprint finish.  Average speeds will be 25mph plus.  

∙    Mountain Stages.  Mountain climbs are conducted in the Alps or Pyrenees.  Many of them are famous in cycling lore for their extreme difficulty and for the courageous acts performed on them over the years.  Most teams have riders who specialize in this area and lead their team when their turn comes.    

∙    Time Trial.  This is another speciality, being able to ride fast and alone.  Each rider leaves individually at one-minute intervals.  The individual times are compared and are added to the riders cumulative time.  There is no team help.   The rider is alone against the clock.  A particular kind of rider excels here, one with the ability to focus and ride within themselves.  

Teams: Teams are commercially sponsored and international although sometimes a team will reflect a certain national image or make up.  Each team is led by a master strategist and manager (Director Sportif) and various support staff in addition to the riders.    Riders can be thought of as filling several roles.

∙    Team Leader.  On the better teams this person is probably a contender for the general classification victory, i.e., Yellow Jersey.

∙    Top Lieutenant.  This position, given various names, is the team’s number two leader and often called upon to provide special work in difficult situations.   

∙    Sprinters.  These are the big beefy riders who often struggle in the mountains but excel in the rough and tough of the flat stages.  

∙    Climbers.   These riders, called “Angels of the Mountains,” are specialists in the mountains.  They are often tiny, with power to weight ratios that are just off the charts but usually without the ultimate power to contend on the flat roads and time trials.

∙    Domestiques.   French for servants, domestiques perform multiple duties for the team.  These include chasing down breakaways, delivering messages or water, and even giving up their bike to someone higher in the pecking order after a crash or mechanical problem has occurred.   Any of the riders - except the team leader - might be called upon to perform domestique duties.  The domestiques worth is determined not by their standing but by the value of the work they give the team.  They are the “grunts” that make it all possible.

Tactics and Terms.  All this comes together in the individual tactics performed during the day.  Here are a few as they occur to me.

∙    Peleton.  The peleton is the largest group of riders on the road.  It is an amazing organism with a life and will of its own.  It moves up and down the road with a kind of collective will.  Riders from different teams will co-exist on the peleton supporting one another and advancing their efforts.  During easier times, there can even be friendly conversations as they cruise along at 25+mph.  But just as the peleton can be benign and friendly, it can become mean, demanding and fierce.  It is a temperamental beast.

∙    Breakaway.  A breakaway is a group of riders who have separated themselves from the peleton by attacking or “going off the front.”   If the breakaway group contains a contending rider, the peloton will fight to bring them back in.  If the break is thought to be “harmless” it may benignly let it go, at least for a while.  The peleton has the advantage over the breakaway because of the aerodynamic advantage of a larger group over a smaller one, i.e., the ability of more riders to take a turn at the front.  An attack or breakaway can be opportunistic or can be a tactical way to wear down opponents.  Breakaways are usually caught by the larger, more powerful, peleton but occasionally they succeed.  There is great drama as a breakaway is chased by the peleton.  It’s a classic David and Goliath scenario.  

∙    Chase.  An attack group is sometimes followed by a chase group.  This is a second group of riders who set off from the peleton in an attempt to catch the attack group.   The effort to move from one group on the road to another is often called bridging.

∙    Teamwork.  There are many examples of teamwork during the Tour but in the context of a breakaway and the peleton a frequent strategy is blocking.  Often there will be teams in the peleton who want the breakaway to succeed just as there will be ones wishing it to fail.  Teammates of those in the breakaway may impede the progress at the front of the peleton by positioning themselves in an obstructionist way.  Oftentimes, this is accompanied by soft pedaling, i.e., pretending to be pedaling harder than they actually are.

The 2014 Tour de France

This year’s Tour route is made up of 21 stages and will cover a distance of nearly 2,300 miles.  There will be nine flat stages, six mountain stages, five hill stages, one individual time trial and two rest days.  

It begins July 5 in Leeds, England and ends July 21 in Paris. The first three stages of this year’s Tour will be in England.  The Tour starts in countries other than France from time to time.  

Think of the Tour this year in three parts:

1.  The sprinters thrive and the climbers survive. The main focus during this early flatter part of the route will be on the sprinters and the stage-win hunters. Crashes should be common so the favorites will use their teams to keep them safe.  Teams unlikely to win the Yellow Jersey may use these days to attempt a daily stage win in an attempt for publicity for their sponsors.  This year the tour has made a real effort to add interest to these early days.  In particular, look for stage five when the route goes over some of the famous rough cobblestones in Northern France.  

2.  The climbers thrive and the sprinters survive.  If job-one for the favorites is to survive the first nine days, job-two comes in the mountains.  This is where the tour may be decided.  The second half of the race has six mountain stages with five mountaintop finishes.  This is when we will see the favorites duke it out in the mountains.

3.  The winner is chosen.  Job three comes on the next-to-last day of the tour.  Coming down from the mountains, the tour will have its only time trial this year - 54km or 33.5 miles.  If the winner is not decisively determined in the mountains, then this day could be one of the most dramatic in a long time.  

Riders to Watch

1.  Chris Froome (G.B., Team Sky).  Froome is the defending champion.  He crashed in the last major race before the Tour, the Dauphine.  His condition is not certain.  His teammate Sir Dave Wiggins, winner of the 2012 tour is unlikely to race also because of a crash.  The team is still strong however with top lieutenant Richie Porte there for support.  Froome great strength is his combined ability to both climb and time trial.  Of the climbers, he is probably the best time trialer and therefore might be able to take advantage of the penultimate days time trial.

2.  Alberto Contador (Spain, Team Saxo Bank).  Contador is an older rider and one of the last contenders from the Lance Armstrong doping days.  He was caught at one point and suspended.  He is believed to be riding clean now and has shown great strength as a very aggressive rider, especially in the mountains.  He is not considered as good at the Time Trial as Froome.    (A personal note, one of my favorite riders Irishman Nicholas Roche is a teammate of Contador.)

3.  Vincenzo Nibali (Italy, Team Astana).   Nibali is the winner of this year’s Giro de Italia and has been toward the top of recent tour standings.  He was not on top form during the Dauphine and some say he may have overtrained.  Nonetheless, he is considered a very savvy and dangerous rider.

4.  Andrew Talansky (USA, Garmin Sharp).  America’s top prospect, 25-year-old Talansky dramatically won last week’s tune up for the Tour, the Criterium du Dauphiné where he beat both Froome and Contador.  He was 10th in last year’s tour.  He is definitely considered an emerging talent.  

5.  TeJay Van Garderen (USA, BMC).  Van Garderen rode the 2012 Tour de France as one of the main domestiques for defending champion Cadel Evans.  He finished 5th and won the White Jersey for the best young rider.  One one notable day, he was stronger than his team leader.  He was only the third American to win the Best Young rider award after Greg LeMond in 1984 and Andrew Hampsten in 1986.  But he lacked form at the 2013 Tour de France and finished 45th.  His prospects look better this year.

6.  Alejandro Valverde (Spain, Movistar).  Valverde's biggest wins have been at the Vuelta a España, and Liège–Bastogne–Liège.  He has the unusual combination of talents to be both a strong climber and a sprinter.  He was suspended for two years for blood doping but he returned in 2012 after completing his ban.  He is consistently a contender but usually has one bad day that keeps him from winning.

7.  Chris Horner (USA, Lampre Merida).  Horner was the winner of this year’s Vuelta de Espana, another of the three grand tours.  

8.  Rui Costa (Portugal, Lampre Merida).  The current world champion, Costa has won the Tour of Switzerland the last three years.

9.  Bauke Mollema (Netherlands, Belkin).  Mollema was a strong second in last year’s tour until becoming ill.  He finished 6th.

 Three more riders are important to watch because they are contenders for the Sprinters Green Jersey.  Watch them especially in the first nine days.  

10.  Mark Cavendish (Great Britain, Omega Pharma Quick Step).  Cavendish, is a prolific sprinter and stage winner - winning 20 times in 2013.  He has won the sprinter’s jersey in all of the three Grand Tours.  Some regard him as the fastest rider in the world.

11.  Peter Sagan (Slovakia, Cannondale).  Sagan is a promising young sprinter. He has won seven stages in Grand Tours: three in the Vuelta España and four in the Tour de France. He was also the winner of the points/sprinter’s classification in the Tour de France, in 2012 and 2013.  

12.  Marcel Kittel (Germany, Argos Shimano).  In the 2013 Tour de France, Kittel found success winning four stages as a sprinter. On the prestigious final stage of the race, Kittel won again beating Mark Cavendish and finishing finish 4th overall in the Green Jersey point’s standings.

How To Watch

The Tour will be telecast on NBC Sports channel, Channel 73 on Mediacom. Check your listings.  The coverage is often repeated through the day.  Be sure to watch for three telecasters that are as much a part of the tour as the event itself.  Phil Liggett will be covering his 42nd tour and he is master of understanding and describing events.  He is very capably assisted by two former Tour riders Paul Sherwin and American Bob Roll.  

On the web, I suggest www.velonews.com or www.cyclingnews.com  orhttp://www.steephill.tv/.  

(Thanks to my friend, Randy Gaffney, for his help with this analysis.  Randy’s an incredible coach who helps all kinds of cyclists meet their goals.  Talk to me if you are interested in professional coaching.)