If you happen to be in France in July and wonder what all the two-wheeling is about – it's the Tour de France. Let us put you in the picture.

Tour de France - A cyclist rides between Embrun and Chorges during the Tour de France against a stunning backdrop of lakes, mountains and a cloud-streaked sky. The cyclist's jersey is red and white and they wear a sleek black and yellow helmet
A cyclist rides between Embrun and Chorges during the Tour de France © Radu Razvan / Shutterstock

The Tour de France route

This year, the race will start in Brussels, hometown of Eddy Merckx, in honour of the 50th anniversary of his first win. 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.

Tour de France - A picture taken in Paris on October 25, 2018 during the presentation of the 2019 edition of the Tour de France cycling race, shows the map of the official route of the 2019 edition of the Tour de France cycling race displayed on stage. (Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
The official route for the Tour de France 2019 © Stephane De Sakutin / Getty Images

The tour takes over the towns 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 a 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.

The history of the Tour de France

The purpose of the Tour de France was simple: to make supermen. The harder the race and the longer the course, the more public interest 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's editor, cyclist and sports journalist Henri Desgrange, burst the boundaries of bicycle racing when he determined the first race’s course, around the perimeter of France, which would take five weeks. When only 15 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 are close to 200 cyclists, who compete in teams of eight 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.

The Tour de France jerseys

2019 marks the 100-year anniversary of the yellow jersey. 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 à pois) for the king of the mountains (the first to the top), and riders are awarded for their chutzpah with the Prix de la Combativité  – for breaking from the peloton and leading, rather than sitting in another’s slipstream.

The Tour de France peloton climbs the road to Col de Pailheres
The Tour de France peloton climbs the road to Col de Pailheres © Radu Razvan / Shutterstock

Where to watch the Tour de France

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 (the Pyrenees and French Alps) which are particularly impressive spot to wait for the riders to pass by. It goes without saying that you should book accommodation in any of the host towns early. Wherever you park yourself, be sure to bring plenty of water as even watching a race in the summer temperatures will take it out of you!

The Tour de France sculpture in the Pyrenees by Jean-Bernard Metais
The Tour de France sculpture in the Pyrenees by Jean-Bernard Metais © Radu Razvan / Shutterstock

For the record

  • Henri Comet was the youngest rider to ever win the Tour de France in 1904, aged 19 years and 350 days.
  • In 1990, Greg LeMond won the overall tour without once wearing the yellow jersey.
  • The prize money for the winner is around €500,000.
  • Firmin Lambot was the oldest rider to ever win the Tour de France in 1922, aged 36 years and four months.
  • In 2019 there will be three stage cities of sites visited for the first time out of the total of 34, they are; Binche, Saint-Dié-des Vosges and Pont du Gard.

This article was first published in July 2009, last updated in June 2019.

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