A guide to the Tour de France

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If you happen to be in France one July and wonder what all the two-wheeling is about, don't worry - it's the Tour de France. Let us put you in the picturesque picture.

‘The course changes every year, but it will always end in Paris after running its spectacularly scenic route through France.’

Its purpose was simple: to make supermen. The harder the race and the longer the course, the more public interest that it would generate. The more sensational, the better. That, after all, is what sells newspapers. And that was the intention behind L’Auto newspaper instituting the world’s most famous bicycle race in 1903.

L’Auto editor, Desgrange, burst the boundaries of bicycle racing when he determined the first race’s course, around the perimeter of France, which would endure for five weeks. When only 16 riders entered, he halved the distance and waved a cash-carrot as incentive to attract more entrants – increasing the number of competitors to 60.

These days, there’s close to 200 cyclists, each competing in teams of nine members. All riders in a team record the same time as their leading rider, with the overall winner of the tour determined by an accumulation of per-day times. The rider with the least accumulated hours wins.

Related article: Tips for fans of the Tour de France

The course changes every year but a few things are certain. One: it will traverse flat terrain (graded as easy) through to hors catégorie (beyond classification), such as the gruelling Tourmalet pass – the highest road in the Pyrenees. Two: the entire length of the race won’t exceed 3500km (with limitations also on the number of kilometres covered in each day’s stage) and will include two rest days. And three: it will end in Paris after running its spectacularly scenic course through France.

As well as the yellow jersey (maillot jaune), worn by the rider with the least elapsed time each day, there’s a green jersey (maillot vert) for the rider with the most sprint points. A polka-dot jersey (maillot a pois) for the king of the mountains (the first to the top), and riders are awarded for their chutzpah with the Prix de la Combativite – for breaking from the peloton and leading, rather than sitting in another’s slipstream.

The tour takes over towns that are en route, each hosting a veritable carnival and barely able to contain the excitement as the word spreads that the riders are on their way. If you have your bike, each day’s stage is open to anyone in the morning. But be quick, or risk being swallowed by the publicity caravan – a 20km-long train of fancy floats advertising commercial products by handing out samples, sweets and souvenirs.

For the record:

  • Lance Armstrong was considered a legend of the tour, winning seven consecutive races (from 1999 to 2005), after surgery and chemotherapy treatment for cancer in 1996. However in 2012 he was stripped of his wins and banned from competitive cycling for life for doping offenses.
  • In 1990, Greg Le Mond won the overall tour without once wearing the yellow jersey.
  • The prize money for the winner is around US$750,000.

Other info:

Entry to compete is by invitation.

For spectators, primo roadside positions are hard-won, with people camping out to claim them up to a week before – especially in the mountain stages. It goes without saying that you should book accommodation in any of the host towns early.

Get more info at the official Tour de France site.