This year’s meandering course measures 3,497 kilometres and comprises 20 stages. The route covers Boulogne in the North, Porrentruy in the East, Foix in the South and (the almost central) Brive-La-Gaillarde – before ending, as always, with a breath-taking finish along the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Just in case you were under any misapprehension, this isn’t an ordinary cycling competition – it is an event that the whole of France pauses to watch and celebrates long into the night. The entire route, however remote or awkward to reach, is lined entirely by enthusiastic supporters, both local and those who have timed their French holiday accordingly.
If you are going to be in the country during June and July but don’t know much about this spectacle of sheer human endurance, here is the low down on the Tour de France…
The Tour as we know it began in 1903 by journalist Geo Lefevre. The first race featured six huge stages and only a third of the entrants finished. Astonished by the then inconceivable 2,500km cross-country bike race, this fledgling event captured public imagination and has remained in their affections ever since.
Unlike any other sporting race, the person who crosses the finish line first isn’t necessarily the winner. The Tour de France is a time trial, with points awarded and deducted at different points during each stage – i.e. being the first to climb a summit or pass a certain landmark. There are several different honours at stake as a consequence, the current winners of each are identified by different coloured jerseys.
The cyclist whose times combined are quickest is given the prestigious yellow jersey to wear, until someone else is faster. The green jersey is worn by the cyclist who has the most points, gained by winning sprints, time trials and stages. A white jersey is issued to the fastest young cyclist, while the red spotty jersey is sported by the person who is first to any mountainous summits. It is the holder of the yellow jersey that is crowned outright winner.
According to those in the know, current title-holder Cadel Evans is favourite to win. The Australian cyclist is viewed as a great ‘all-rounder’: good at climbing, sprinting and downhill stages. His main competition is Brit, Bradley Wiggins, who has been named ‘official challenger’. Canadian Ryder Hesjedal could also be one to look out for, having recently won the Tour of Italy and gained confidence in doing so. Many of the competitors will be using the event as a ‘warm-up’ for the London 2012 Olympic Games, which starts only days after the Tour concludes.
The caravane publicitaire
While it’s perhaps a little shameful to admit, over a third of all spectators watch to Tour De France to see the ‘rolling party’ that is the publicity caravan: a procession of branded vehicles from which the Tour earns revenue. The parade of floats follows the race, throwing out free samples and gifts to the waiting public.
Now you know the basics, you’ll be able to watch, enjoy and participate in this wonderful sporting event – perhaps even being sufficiently inspired to hire a bike and explore France par velo yourself.