July 17, 2012
Every July, the streets of France come alive with one of the greatest sporting spectacles of the year. Le Tour De France is one of the longest, and hardest, professional sporting events in the world with 22 teams of 9 riders racing for over 2,000 miles around France.
Originally conceiving in 1903 as a publicity stunt for a struggling newspaper, it has grown into one of the largest and most popular sporting events in the world. The Queen Stage, or most challenging stage of the year, will regularly attract upwards of 1million spectators lining the streets and the annual sprint finish on the Champs Elysees can get over 1.5billion TV viewers worldwide.
After two weeks of racing, the Tour is just heading into the second, and last, rest day before the final few challenging stages in the Pyrenees Mountains that separate France and Spain. It seems at this stage that the main racing issues are already decided, but with 2 high mountain stages and a time trial left to race it is still possible for everything to change.
How It Works
Like the counterparts in Italy (Giro D’Italia) and Spain (Vuelta a Espana), Le Tour De France forms one of the three cycling Grand Tours. These three events run for three weeks with two rest days in the middle – no other professional cycle races can last for longer than one week.
The race consists of 20 stages of racing that are a mixture of four different types of stage:
• Flat – usually end in a sprint finish
• Medium Mountain
• High Mountain
• Time Trial – individual or team including the Prologue
The rider with the lowest total time is the leader of the race and wears the famous Maillot Jeune, or Yellow Jersey. The best young rider also wears a White Jersey, and the leading team also gets recognized.
Over the last few years, the flat stages tend to end in a sprint finish where the sprint specialists like Mark Cavendish reach speeds of over 40mph in the dash for the line. These fast men usually battle for the Points Category and the current leader wears the Green Jersey.
Sprinters are normally muscle-bound strongmen, who can get high speeds on the flat but often struggle as soon as the race heads upwards. The mountain stages favor slighter men who can climb well and descend fearlessly. While the race is rarely won entirely in the mountains now, it can certainly be lost by any rider that has a bad day. Every year the race visits the large mountains ranges in France, such as the Jura, Alps and Pyrenees and the most famous mountains passes form part of the folklore of the race.
The steepness and length of the mountain climbs determines the classification of Category 4, 3, 2, 1 and Hors Categorie. The most famous and feared climbs include Mount Ventoux and the Col Du Tourmalet, both of which feature over 10miles of climbing at 7.4%. The first riders over each mountain get King of the Mountains points, and the leader of this category wears the Polka Dot jersey.
The final type of stage is the time trial where each cyclist races against the clock. The time trial is one place where large time differences can appear even over a relatively short stage, and the top performers in these stages often win the race.
The 2012 Tour
The 2012 tour follows the custom of recent years, with the race starting with a prologue stage. Fabian Cancellara was the fastest over this short time trial stage, and he proceeded to wear the leader’s yellow jersey for most of the first week. His lead lasted until the first mountain stage, where Britain’s Bradley Wiggins took over the leader of the race. A fantastic performance, and stage win, in the first long time trial stage extended that lead out to 2 minutes over the defending champion, Cadel Evans.
After the first rest day, the race entered the Alps and despite attacks from both Evans and the Italian Vincenzo Nibali, the strength of Team Sky meant that the race entered the second rest day with Wiggins holding a 2 minute lead over his team mate Chris Froome. Both British riders are aiming to be the first British cyclist to win the coveted race, but will need to be careful as the race enters the steep slopes of the Pyrenees in the final week.
One of the big surprises of this year’s Tour has been the performance of Green Jersey wearer Peter Sagan. The young Slovakian rider in his first Tour De France has already won 3 stages and came second on the breakaway over the mountains in Stage 14 to gain an almost unassailable lead in the point’s competition. His closest competitor is Andre Greipel, who has also taken the honors in three stages.
The King of the Mountains jersey has swapped shoulders several times, but the current leader is Fredrik Kessiakoff. With a number of points available in the Pyrenees, then this jersey is the most likely to change hands before the end of the race.
It would not be the Tour De France without some form of controversy. Drugs has been a persistent problem for the last few years, and the news has just broken that one of the pre-race favorites, Frank Schleck has withdrawn after failing a drugs test for the banned diuretic Xipamide. Remy Di Gregorio has also withdrawn after police charged him with “possession of banned substances”. Race Leader Bradley Wiggins gave a foul-mouthed press conference rant against people using Twitter to spread doping allegations against him, but got plenty of support from the rest of the peloton.
Members of the audience also disrupted a stage after scattering carpet tacks over the road during stage 14. Many riders were affected by punctures, and one rider left the race with a broken collarbone while trying to stop and change bike with his team leader.
In addition to the riders who have had a great tour, some have had not had luck on their side. A series of crashes in the first stages led to a number of pre-race favorites to abandon the race or lose plenty of time. The Garmin team was badly affected with both Tom Danielson and Ryder Hesjedal leaving after a big crash.
The World road race champion, Mark Cavendish has also had a disappointing year by his high standards, with only a single stage victory. His main aim this year is Olympic Gold, but will want another stage win to draw level with the great Andre Darrigade as the greatest ever sprinter in the race.
With just six stages left to race, the final picture is slowly becoming clear but anything can happen and none of the riders can relax.