7th July 2016

Beginners’ Guide to the Tour de France

tour de france - a beginners guide

If you tune into the Tour highlights at 7:00pm on ITV4 and wonder what Gary Imlach or Chris Boardman are on about when they refer to the ‘GC’ or the ‘polka dot jersey’, here’s a wee primer.

Often simply referred to as The Tour or Le Tour, the Tour de France is the most prestigious annual bicycle race in the world.

Staged over three weeks, The Tour is indeed an epic bike race which this year will cover 3,519km.

Among the factors that make Le Tour truly engaging, is that whilst only one person can win it outright, that rider’s victory depends upon teamwork. When you watch how each team protects its leader, while making tactical decision on the fly, such as whether or not to chase down a breakaway group, you begin to understand why Le Tour has been described as ‘chess on wheels’.


How to win

Every one of the 22 teams participating in the 2016 Tour are committed to helping their team leader(s) achieve glory.

For the favourite riders, ‘glory’ means first in the General Classification (i.e. overall winner by time across the 21 stages) and the right to wear the Yellow Jersey at the end of the final stage in Paris, as Britain’s Team Sky achieved with Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015.

If Yellow isn’t attainable, the Green, Polka Dot and White Jerseys also bring enormous prestige (see the jersey’s meanings below).

For smaller teams and for individuals, even to win a single day’s stage is an immense achievement that will make the team’s sponsors very happy, and make the winner a hero for life.

super mario cyclist

One of the most famous examples of the one-day specialist was Italy’s Mario Cipollini. That most flamboyant sprinter won 12 Tour stages in the 1990s, including a post-war record of four on the bounce in 1999. Super Mario remains a legend to this day, even though he never once finished a Tour, always choosing instead to retire from the race as soon as it reached the mountain stages.

The Jerseys

Maillot Jaune (Yellow Jersey) / GC (General Classification)

Yellow Jersey

The GC measures each rider’s overall time, measured from the first second of day one of the Tour. The GC is recalculated at the end of each day’s racing, and the rider with the shortest aggregate time is deemed first in the General Classification and is awarded the Yellow Jersey at the end of the stage. The GC leader can therefore change from day to day. The rider who reaches the Paris finish in the shortest overall time is first in the GC General Classification and thus the winner of the Tour de France.

Even after three weeks riding over 3,500km, margins tend to be close. The winner’s margin over the second placed rider has been less than 10 minutes on every Tour over the last 30 years and in under one minute five times over the same period. America’s Greg Lemond famously won the Tour by the smallest margin ever – by just 8 seconds – in 1989.

Polka Dot Jersey / King Of The Mountains

Polka Dot JerseyMountains Classification points are awarded to the leading riders over the summit of The Tour’s longest and steepest mountain roads. Usually the preserve of wiry, lightweight cyclists the King of the Mountains is a truly arduous contest, which only two British riders have won – Glasgow’s Robert Millar in 1984 and Chris Froome in 2015.

Green / Points Classification

Green JerseyTo encourage exciting sprint finishes at the end of each stage (and to add interest to designated intermediate primes) points are awarded to the fastest sprinters. Like the Yellow and Polka Dot Jerseys, ownership of the Green Jersey can change over the duration of the race. The rider with the highest overall points total at the end of the race gets to keep it. Super popular Slovak sprinter Peter Sagan has pretty much owned the green jersey since 2012 and looks set to retain it this year (based on his performances up to stage 5 when this piece was written).

White / Young Rider Classification

White JerseyIn recognition that the Yellow Jersey almost always goes to an experienced rider in his late 20s / early 30s, the White Jersey is awarded to the best-placed rider under 26 in the General Classification. Columbia’s Nairo Quintana won the White Jersey in 2015.

Team Classification

The times of the best three riders of each team in each stage is aggregated to calculate which team reached the Paris finish in the lowest overall time. Team Movistar led by that man, Nairo Quintana’s won it in 2015.


Each of the 21 days of racing at the Tour is called a stage: flat, mountain/hilly or time trial.


Nine of the days of this year’s Tour are designated as flat stages.

Flat stages tend to be long – up to 238km this year. The peloton (the main pack of riders) tends to stay pretty much together with different groups of riders taking their turn at the front and therefore sheltering the riders behind and conserving their energy for the days ahead.

Stage 4 was relativly flat with only two small climbs on the 193 kilometer route from Rheingelden to Champagne. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

A flat Stage of the Tour de France in 2015. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Because its momentum is so formidable, the peloton usually catches small breakaway groups before they can build any significant time advantage over the pack. Having said that, you do get the odd stage where a rider or three go off on a breakaway 150km before the finish and never get caught. Cycling aficionados remember such exceptional breakaways as warmly as football fans recalling Pelé’s famous shot from his own half at the 1970 World Cup.

The highlight of most flat stage with the fans is the often exciting, sometimes terrifying bunch sprint finale – an art which Manx Missile Mark Cavendish excels at, winning 28 Tour stages since 2008. Success on bunch sprints often determines who will be wearing the Green Jersey in Paris.

As for the Yellow Jersey it can often pass from one rider to another from day to day as different riders have their day in the sun. However the Tour is rarely decided here, though the flat stages can still have a big influence on who the eventual GC leader will be if, for example, the race favourites’ most serious rival or rivals crash badly and have to abandon the race.

Hilly & Mountain Stages

It’s here that the race gets really interesting – so much so, many casual observers barely pay attention to Le Tour until it reaches the dramatic cols of the Alps and the Pyrenees where the riders face climbs from sea level to 2,000m – sometimes with a sprint finish to the summit.

tour de france 2015 stages

In France, mountains are mountains.

In the mountains an in-form rider can make serious gains of 30 or even 60 minutes over their closest rivals. The race favourite who performs most consistently over this attritional terrain often turns out to be the one who earns the right to wear Yellow in Paris.

With its one hilly stage and nine mountain stages, most experts agree that this year’s Tour will be one for the climbing specialists: making Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana this year’s favourites in the General Classification.

Time Trial

The time trial (TT) has a staggered start with a two minute interval between each rider. Each rider races against the clock. Unlike a road race, you can’t draft in the slipstream of another rider to save energy. You’re on your own. That’s why the time trial is known as the race of truth.

time trial tour

The 2016 Tour features one individual 37.5km time trial and a 17km mountain time trial. Even though these stages are comparatively short, a time trial specialist can gain a one-minute advantage over his competitors, and effectively win The Tour with one exceptional TT performance.


If you’re a Tour neophyte, we hope this beginner’s guide sheds some light.

However, it’s only right that we should mention that watching TV highlights of the Tour can be a gateway drug.

Before long, you could join the growing number of people we know who book three weeks holidays every July to watch the full-day TV coverage or, better still, head off to the hills (as in Alpe D’huez and Mont Ventoux) to watch the action live.

You have been warned.

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