Each village has its only special wine associated with it, so it pays to stop at more than one to discover each unique offering. Robert-Gilles mentioned La Masion des Vins in Chalon as a single source to sample as an alternative, but if you have the opportunity to explore the vineyards it should not be missed.
To appreciate the Tour de France, you need to know it is one of the grand annual stage races (it takes place over multiple days in July), as compared to other famous races such as Paris-Roubaix are a single day race. It covers more than 3,500 kilometres (2,200 mi) throughout France and bordering countries. The race usually lasts 23 days and premier cyclists from around the world line up to attend. The race is broken down into day-long segments, called stages. Individual times to finish each stage are totaled to determine the overall winner for the race. The rider with the least elapsed time each day wears the famous yellow jersey. The course is tweaked each year but it always finishes in Paris. It is one of the triple crown of such races, the other two are Italy (Giro d’Italia) and Spain (Vuelta a España) but the Tour de France is the oldest and most prestigious.
It is possible to win the race without winning a stage, but rare. The number of stages vary, but the number sticks to around 20 is common, with a total length of ~ 3,500 km (2,200 mi)! The race alternates between clockwise and counter-clockwise circuits of France. The New York Times said that the “Tour de France is arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events.” The effort was compared to “running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks”, while the total elevation of the climbs was compared to “climbing three Everests.” (and you wonder why they eat over 10,000 calories per day) The number of riders varies annually, but typically the race starts with 20 to 22 teams, each with nine riders, and it is by invitation only. I say starts, because from day one, riders constantly drop out of the race. Each team, named after its sponsor, wears a distinctive jersey. One of the first things I needed to understand to really appreciate this sport, is that it really is a team sport.
Riders are judged by accumulated time, known as the general classification, or GC for short. The rider leading in this category wears the cherished yellow jersey. Riders are often awarded time bonuses in addition to prizes, so they commonly make last minute sprints to gain those valuable extra points.
Stages run the gamut from flat to undulating to mountainous. The type of terrain favors certain riders, some make a living as a time trialists, while others are climbing specialists. Riders generally start each day in a pack, but stages may include time trials for individuals or teams. The overall winner is usually something of a generalist with a mastery of the mountains and time trials because the race is designed not to favor a specific style. Although, it was rumored that when Lance was on his winning streak the course designers tried to design a race that targeted his weak points.
How the Tour Started
The original daily sports newspaper in France, at the end of the 19th century, was Le Vélo (The Bicycle). At the time, France was split over the innocence of a soldier, found guilty of selling secrets to the Germans. Le Vélo believed in his innocence while some of its biggest advertisers believed him to be guilty. Following clashes between the advertisers and the editor, Pierre Giffard, the advertisers started a rival paper, L’Auto.
L’Auto began to promote the Tour de France as a way to show up the rival race Paris-Brest et retour organised by Giffard. The idea for a round-France race came from L’Auto‘s chief cycling journalist, Géo Lefèvre. L’Auto announced the race in January 1903. They planned a five-week race, but this idea proved too daunting – only 15 riders entered. Desgrange trimmed the time to 19 days, with the added incentive of a daily allowance. He attracted 60 entrants; not just professionals, but amateurs too. The demanding nature of the race, sparked the public’s imagination.
Initially, Desgrange worried he asked too much of the bikers, at that time his route included one mountain pass. The racer rode, or more accurately walked, first the col d’Aubisque and then the nearby Tourmalet. Both climbs were mule tracks – an incredibly challenging feat for heavy bikes lacking gears. The men rode with spare tires draped around their shoulders and their food, clothing and tools in bags that hung from their handlebars. The eventual winner told waiting officials that they were “killers” (assassins). Based on that feedback, Desgrange included the Alps in the route in 1911.
Passes such as the Tourmalet, made famous by the Tour, attract amateur cyclists in summer to test their fitness on roads used by champions. The difficulty of a climb is established by its steepness, length and its position on the course. The easiest climbs are graded 4, the most difficult are a catagory 1, and the exceptional (such as the Tourmalet) as beyond catagory, or hors catégorie. Famous hors catégorie peaks include the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, Col du Galibier, the climb to the ski resort of Hautacam, and Alpe d’Huez.
The Tour originally ran the perimeter of France. Cycling was an endurance sport and the organisers realised the sales would climb by creating supermen of their riders. Night riding was dropped after the second Tour in 1904, because of rampant cheating when judges could not see the riders. This change reduced the daily and overall distance but focused the emphasis on endurance. Desgrange said his ideal race would be so hard that only one rider would make it to Paris.
Throughout the history of the race, riders have had a variety of alliances, either individual members, part of national teams, or as sponsored riders. The race organizers have experimented with all the combinations before settling on the sponsored team approach in 1969.
I have to say really understanding this section interested me as I knew at a superficial level what the jerseys stood for, but knowing the details makes appreciating what the riders are trying to do easier. Every racer dreams of glory in the TdeF with podium girls kissing each cheek and wearing the yellow jersey as their goal. However, three other significant competitions within tour are also prized: points, mountains, and best young rider. The leaders of each competitions wear distinctive jerseys, awarded after each stage. When a single rider is entitled to more than one jersey, he wears the most prestigious and the second rider in the other classification wears the second jersey. The overall and points competitions may be led by the same rider: the fastest rider wears the yellow jersey, and the rider second in the points competition wears the green jersey.
The Tour’s colors were adopted by other races and thus the colors significance has broad meaning within cycling, e.g. the Tour of Britain. The Giro d’Italia differs only in awarding the leader a pink jersey, being organized by La Gazzetta dello Sport. The jersey is pink for the pink pages of the paper.
The maillot jaune or yellow jersey is worn by the general classification leader. This is the jersey to take home!
The maillot vert (green jersey) is awarded for sprint points. At the end of each stage, points are earned by the riders who finish first, second, etc. Points are higher for flat stages, as sprints are more likely, and less for mountain stages, where climbers usually win. There are five types of stages: flat, intermediates, mountain, individual time tria and team time trial stages.
In case of a tie, the winner is determined by the following criteria: the number of stage wins determine the green jersey, then the number of intermediate sprint victories, and finally, the rider’s standing in the overall classification.
King of the Mountains
The King of the Mountains wears a white jersey with red dots (maillot à pois rouges). The competition gives points to the first to top designated hills and mountains. The year we watched the lead contender was French so this jersey was very popular among the spectators. I wanted very badly to score a hat from the schwag wagon, but it was not meant to be.
The maillot blanc (white jersey) is for the best rider under 25 on January 1 that year. Also known as the “best young rider”
The prix de la combativité goes to the rider who most energizes the day, usually by attempting a breakaway. The most combative rider wears a number printed white-on-red instead of black-on-white next day, and is recognized throughout the Tour.
The team prize is assessed by adding the time of each team’s best three riders each day. The competition does not have its own jersey but since 2006 the leading team has worn numbers printed black-on-yellow. The competition has existed since the start of the Tour races.
Riders start most stages together, exceptions include the time trials. The first kilometres, the départ fictif, are a rolling start without racing, with the real start, départ réel, announced by the waving of a white flag.
Riders can touch and draft off of other riders, but not push or nudge. The first rider to cross the finish line wins. Generally a breakaway from the peloton occurs and one or two riders finish ahead of the pack – followed by the peloton finishing en masse – all credited with the same time. It is very important for the riders not to slip off the back, as they loose that advantage. This decision to award the same time avoids the carnage that mass sprints pose.
Time bonuses are often awarded to the first three at intermediate sprints and stage finishes. Riders who crash in the last three kilometres are credited with the time of the group they were with. This prevents riders being penalised for accidents that do not reflect their performance on the stage, given that crashes in the final kilometer can be unavoidable. The final kilometre is indicated by a red triangle – the flamme rouge – above the road.
Stages in the mountains almost always cause changes to the rankings in the general classification. On ordinary stages, most riders can stay in the peloton; during mountain stages, riders string out, and the time trial specialist may lose 30+ minutes. The mountains often decide the Tour, and these stages bring spectators who line the roads by the thousands. I think one of the reasons for this is that you can actually see the riders, on the flat stages they whiz by you so fast, they are just a blur and a gust of wind. If you are at the top of the hill and can watch them climb you appreciate the incredible effort being put forth.
In an individual time trial each rider rides individually against the clock. The first stage of the tour is often a short trial, a prologue, to decide who wears yellow on the opening day.
There are usually two or three time trials . One trial is often a team time trial. Traditionally the final time trial has been the penultimate stage, and determines the winner before the final ordinary stage which is not ridden competitively until the last hour. A team time trial is a race against the clock. The team’s time is that of the fifth rider. Riders more than a bike-length behind their teams are awarded their own times. This trial has been criticised for favouring strong teams and handicapping strong riders in weak teams.
Farmers build dioramas out of hay or mowed into the fields, depicting bicycles and “vive le tour.”
The excitement shoots to a crescendo before the crowds see the racers as the publicity train passes by, blaring music and tossing hats, souvenirs, sweets and samples. They know that after this train comes the cyclists. As word passes that the riders are approaching, fans sometimes encroach on the road until they are an arm’s length from riders.
Customs & Quirks
The riders temper their competitiveness with a code of conduct. It is unsporting to attack a leading rider delayed by misfortune. Attacking in the feed zone is also bad form. Not sticking to customs leads to less than friendly relations.
The poor rider number 13 is allowed to wear one of his numbers upside down.
Some Bike Racing Terms – taken from The Tour of California Site (another great stage race)
Abandon. When a rider quits during a race.
Attack. A sudden acceleration by a rider to move ahead of another rider or group “He’s on the attack”
Bonk. Total exhaustion caused by lack of sufficient food during a long race or ride. This one usually hits you like a brick wall – its suddenly and you just cannot recover
Bonus Sprints. On each stage, race organizers designate several locations along the route where bonus points are given to the first three riders that cross the line. These sprints create a “race within a race” during each stage.
Breakaway. One or more riders who sprint away from the peloton in an effort to build a lead. Competing riders in a breakaway will often form uneasy alliances, working together and drafting to increase or maintain their lead – strategy is key. Those alliances break down, though, as they approach the finish. A team leader in a breakaway with multiple teammates has a decided advantage over a rider who with no support. Someone who led this effort might be awarded the prix de la combativité.
Bridge. A rider or riders who sprint away from the main group of riders, or peloton, and catch the breakaway.
Broom Wagon. The vehicle that retrieves racers who abandoned the race.
Caravan/Race Caravan The official and team support vehicles in a race. Each team has a car in the official race caravan. The team cars follow the peloton and riders will often go back to their team car for food, extra clothing, or to speak to their team director.
Col. A mountain pass or climb, such as ‘Col du Telegraph’.
DNF. Short for “Did Not Finish”
Domestique. A rider whose main job is to help the team leader win the day’s stage, or the entire race. A domestique may pull the leader up to a breakaway, or pace them up a steep climb. If a team leader gets a flat, a domestique may even be called upon to give up their front or rear wheel and wait for the team mechanic, saving the leader precious seconds.
Drafting. One or more riders ride single file behind another rider, taking advantage of that rider’s slipstream. By doing so the rider behind has less of a headwind and gets a breather. In a crosswind, riders may ride in a diagonal line, instead. Drafting is the lynchpin of most bicycle racing tactics. See also paceline.
Drop/Dropped. When a rider has been left behind by another rider or group of riders. He falls back and cannot catch up.
Echappee. The cyclist who escapes from the pack. The ‘escapee’.
Echelon. A staggered, long line of riders, each downwind of the rider ahead, allowing them to move considerably faster than a solo rider or small group of riders. In windy sections where there are crosswinds, a large peloton will form into echelons. Watching this take place is similar to watching geese fly when then string out and can form that “V” pattern.
Equipe. A cycling team.
Feed Zone. A designated area along the route where riders can grab “musette bags” filled with food and drinks as they ride by.
Field Sprint. A mass sprint at the finish among the main group of riders in a road race.
Gap. The amount of time or distance between a rider or group of riders and another rider or group of riders. This is really a case of “Mind the Gap” as the larger it is indicates how far behind the rider is.
General Classification (G.C.). The overall leader board in the race, representing each rider’s total cumulative time in the race. The rider with the lowest time is number one on the G.C.
Gruppetto. A group of riders that forms at the back of the peloton in the mountain stages and ride at a pace that allows them to finish just inside the time limit. (see Time Cut.) Usually the gruppetto is comprised of sprinters and other riders who are not climbing specialists or race leaders. Gruppetto is Italian for “a small group”
Jump. A quick acceleration, which usually develops into a sprint.
King of the Mountains. The KOM is the fastest climber in the overall standings. King of the Mountain is awarded to the racer who is awarded points based on the many KOM sprints in the Tour. Look for the KOM jersey in the race.
Lead Out. A racer’s teammate(s) form a paceline in front of the leader, pulling hard for the finish. The supporting cast (domestiques) pulls off one at a time, leaving the leader rested and fast for the last sprint. Leadouts typically happen right before the finish line or sprint. This is part of the strategy and teamwork I alluded to earlier.
Mechanical. Slang for a problem with the bicycle. “He had a mechanical.”
Mountain Climb Classifications. Large mountain climbs are normally classified according to their difficulty. Category 4 is the easiest, followed by Categories 3, 2, 1, and the Hors-Categorie (which is the hardest). Mountain climbs are classified according to their length and the average gradient of the road’s incline.
Off the Back. When a rider or riders cannot keep pace with the main group and lag behind.
Off the Front When a rider takes part in a breakaway.
Paceline. A formation of two or more riders who are drafting. Typically, racers take turns doing the hard work at the front of the line.
Peloton. The main group of racers. With its dozens of colorful jerseys, maneuvering for position and breakneck speeds, the peloton can be quite a sight. Also called the pack.
Prologue. One type of beginning for a stage race, which is a relatively short time trial.
Road Rash. Skin abrasions resulting from a fall or crash onto the road.
Schwag. The free stuff competitors get when they race. May include water bottles, jerseys, food, or more expensive toys.
Slipstream. The area of least wind resistance behind a rider.
Sprint. A quick scramble for the finish line or a mid-race king of the mountain or other competition. A professional road race sprint is fast, furious and tactical. Watch for riders to jockey for the second or third spot, or organize leadouts by their teammates.
Squirrel. A small rodent, but also a rider who is erratic and ‘squirrely’ when riding in a group.
Team Leader. The rider for whom the team supports in order for the leader to win a stage or race
Technical. A descent or other portion of a race that is twisty, steep or otherwise challenging from the point of view of bike handling.
Time Cut. Mostly applicable to the Grand Tours. On each stage all riders must finish within a certain percentage of the winner’s time to remain in the race. Those who are unable to make the cut are disqualified from the race
Time Trial. Often called the Race of Truth, a time trial pits a rider or a team against the clock. Individual time trials are grueling affairs, with each rider expending maximum effort.
Train. A fast moving paceline of riders
Velo. French for “bicycle”
Wheelsucker. A somewhat dated term for someone who, while riding in a paceline, doesn’t take a turn at the front of the line.