Cue Joe Dassin’s classic “Champs-Élysées” and break out the baguettes and cheese. It’s nearly time for the start of the 102nd edition of the Tour de France. If you’ve never watched le Tour before, it’s important to understand a few of the basics. First, no one will be riding the Tour with their spare tire wrapped around their shoulders like this competitor had to. Instead, the Tour is a sophisticated, 21 stage bicycle race with trains of team support vehicles offering spare tires and, in fact, spare bikes for their riders. The race kicks off on July 4th in Utrecht and finishes on July 26th in Paris on the iconic Champs-Élysées with two rest days built in to the race calendar. “Utrecht?!” you say, “I thought this was the Tour de France, not the Netherlands.” Well, bravo to you for knowing where Utrecht is off the top of your head, and you should also know that the Tour starts and travels through different routes every year, which provides new excitement when watching the event year in and year out. Just last year, the Tour began in England.
This year’s Tour will have four stages in the Netherlands before moving to the northern French coastal region and eventually shifting to the south before making its way east into the French Alps and ultimately ending in Paris, where the riders will have completed more than 2,000 miles of cycling. The route will feature 9 flat stages, 3 hilly stages, 7 mountain stages, and 2 time-trial stages. During the course of the race, riders will compete for the four major jerseys, which are denoted by their colors: yellow, green, polka-dot, and white. The yellow jersey, or the malloit jaune, is the jersey worn by the overall leader of the Tour in terms of the general individual time classification. This is the person with lowest cumulative time through all of the stages ridden. It is the most prestigious of jerseys and its winner is THE winner of the Tour. The green jersey is the sprinter’s jersey, and it is worn by the leader of the points classification. Points are earned by winning, or placing high, in the intermediate sprints or in stage finishes. The polka-dot jersey is worn by the King of the Mountains, which is the rider who leads in points for the best climber competition. These points are earned by being one of the first riders to summit climbs that are significant enough to merit classification. And finally, the white jersey is reserved for the best young rider. This is worn by the person aged 25 or less who has the best time in the individual time classification.
So, now you know how it all works, but you may still be asking yourself why you would sit and watch 198 riders sit on their bikes for 4-5 hours every day. The competition and the competitors! That’s why (and views of scenic French chateaus and daring alpine ascents aren’t bad either). There are 22 teams, each with 9 riders, that compete in the Tour de France, and each team has a unique goal for the Tour. Some teams have come with the sole purpose of trying the win the entire race. In pursuit of this, they will have one major contender for the general time classification, or GC contender, and will structure the rest of their team’s riders, or domestiques, for supporting their main contender. Team Sky, for example, will come to the Tour with Chris Froome as their GC guy, with the rest of the team built around protecting him on the cobbled streets and supporting him in the mountains. Other teams will focus on the sprints, with riders specifically chosen to put together the best lead-out for their sprinter. And others will be looking for stage wins or other small victories to take home.
Who to Watch
This is all well and good, but what should you be looking for in this year’s Tour? First, the major GC contenders have been called the Fab Four and are the odds-on favorites to win the Tour. Chris Froome, for Team Sky, won the Tour in 2013, crashed out last year, but looks to be in good form this year with a recent win at the 8-stage Critérium du Dauphiné. Vincenzo Nibali, of Team Astana, won last year’s Tour but has had a quiet lead up to this year’s race, with no major victories at this point in the year. Alberto Contador, from Team Tinkoff-Saxo, is a two time past Tour winner, with 7 Grand Tour victories and a more recent past mired with doping allegations resulted in a two-year racing suspension. His return to the Tour in 2013 saw him place 4th, but he crashed out of the race last year. However, he won another 3-week Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, in May and is seeking to become only the eighth person ever to win the Giro and Tour back to back. Finally, Nairo Quintana from Team Movistar is making only his second appearance in the Tour. However, when he rode in 2013, he finished in 2nd place, won the white jersey, and although he skipped the Tour last year, he won the Giro d’Italia in 2014, making him a real threat.
Among the sprinters, two names stand above the rest: Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. Peter Sagan of Tinkoff-Saxo has won the green jersey the last three years and seems to be hitting his stride in the lead up to the Tour with two recent stage wins at the Tour de Suisse and the overall win at the Amgen Tour of California. Mark Cavendish form Team Etixx-Quick Step has won 25 stages of the Tour de France during his tenure there, which places him third on the list of all-time stage winners of the Tour. Although other sprinters like André Greipel of Team Lotto-Belisol and Alexander Kristoff of Team Katusha will likely contest well for stage wins, without the recent, dominant force of Marcel Kittel, who will sit out this year’s Tour, Sagan and Cavendish will be names to watch. Cavendish, in particular, will be looking to making his name this year after crashing out of last year’s Tour very early.
Who I’m Watching
For me, I’m interested this year in a few specific storylines. As far as teams go, I can’t wait to see MTN-Qhubeka and Cannondale-Garmin. I first heard about MTN-Qhubeka because they picked up a sponsorship by my favorite bike brand, Cervélo. But, this team represents so much more. It is the first African team to ever ride in the Tour de France, with the bulk of its riders hailing from Eritrea and South Africa. It was organized to promote riding in Africa and donates bikes to rural African communities. One of its Eritrean riders, Daniel Teklehaimanot won the polka-dot jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné this year, becoming the first African rider to win a jersey at a World Tour event. He may try to contend for the same jersey at the Tour while his team will certainly be looking to pick up stage wins in any way possible. Cannondale-Garmin, an American based team brings an interesting roster to the Tour. Instead of just one GC contender, Cannondale has three riders it believes can challenge for the win: Andrew Talansky, Ryder Hesjesdal, and Dan Martin. Hesjedal won the Giro d’Italia in 2012, Martin won a stage at the Tour in 2013, and Talansky is considered to be a possible Tour winner outside of the Fab Four. The team CEO has promised some crazy tactics, utilizing all three riders to attack their opponents on the climbs. So, it should make for some entertaining days in the Alps.
As far as individuals go, I’m following a few big stories. If the diminutive Colombian rider Nairo Quintana (he’s 5’6”, 128 pounds) wins, he would be the first Tour winner from Latin America in the race’s history. As well, Alberto Contador could be the first Giro-Tour winner in the same season since Marco Pantani did it in 1998. Another interesting fact is that this year’s Tour features the smallest number of American riders since 1996. There are only three Americans this year: Andrew Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, and Tyler Farrar. While few in number, each of these riders are considered strong contenders for either stage wins or the overall win.
Finally, and to me one of the most interesting storylines, is the search for the next French Tour de France winner. The Tour is a national obsession for the French, yet they have not had a winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985. It is a cloud that hangs over the head of the French people, which leads them to speculate each year as to who their best chance is for a Frenchman to win. This year it’s Thibaut Pinot from Team FDJ and Romain Bardet from Team AG2R La Mondiale. Pinot is 25 and Bardet is 24, and both represent a solid wave of talent in the next generation of French riders. My money is on Bardet. He finished 6th in last year’s Tour de France, and proved that his skills and aggressiveness are on form in stage 5 of this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné (he also rides a Focus bike, which is the same kind I ride). Whether he can beat the Fab Four is a big question, but if any Frenchman can do it, it’s him.
This only scratches the surface of the teams, the riders, and the tactics that are a part of the Tour de France. Take some time this month to watch some of the race. It’s live every morning, and they always show a truncated replay at night. Enjoy the views and enjoy the fact that it’s not your butt that’s stuck on a skinny saddle nearly every day for three weeks.