Picture courtesy of www.velonews.com.
There are a number of official and unofficial competitions that are contested in the Tour. The key competitions are :
• The General Classification – The winner of the General Classification is the rider with the lowest cumulative time over the entire race. Since 1919, the leader of the GC at the end of the previous stage wears a yellow jersey on the following day’s stage. Standings in the GC are reported with the total time of the leader and the number of minutes and seconds slower each of the other riders is than the leader. The standings for the GC are subject to two adjustments. First, riders can earn “bonus” seconds (more accurately, deductions from their cumulative time) by winning or placing highly in a mass start stage (as much as 20 seconds off for winning one of the flat stages in the first week) or by being one of the first 3 riders across pre-determined points on the course called “intermediate sprints”. The second adjustment is that, for reasons of safety, all riders who cross the finish line in a group are credited with the same time, even if it takes the group a number of seconds to get across the line. Also, if there is a crash within 1 km of the finish (as in Stage 1 of last year’s tour in which Tyler Hamilton broke his collarbone), all riders in the group that crashed who eventually cross the finish line are credited with the same time as the rest of the group. The combination of bonuses and “same time” finishes means that aggressive riders who make long break-aways (and thereby get the intermediate sprint bonuses) and strong sprinters (who typically get the stage winner’s bonuses) fight it out for the yellow jersey early on – and the gap between first place on the GC and 100th place is measured in a handful of seconds. Once the race hits the mountains (or a large break-away succeeds – as in the stage to Pontalier in 2001), gaps of many minutes open up in the GC and the tight fights for a 2 second bonus in the first few stages are soon meaningless.
• The Points Competition – In addition to the GC, there are a number of other competions within the TDF. After the GC, the next most important is the points competition. Riders earn points based on the order of finish in each stage. For example, the winner of a mass start stage earns up to 35 points with lesser points awarded to finishers down to 20th place. In addition, a handful of points are also awarded at each of the intermediate sprints. The leader in the points competition wears a green jersey. In each of the last 3 years, the final winner of the green jersey has not been decided until the very last stage finish at the end of the Tour.
• The King of the Mountains competition – The next most important competition is the climbers’ points or “King of the Mountains” competition. Over the course of 3 weeks, the Tour goes over a number of mountains and mountain passes. Key stages finish at summits in the Pyrenees or the Alps. Each of the major climbs in the Tour is categorized based on its level of difficulty from a relatively painless category 4 up to long, steep category 1. The nastiest climbs of all, like the Galibier, Mont Ventoux, the Tourmalet and the Alpe d’ Huez, are classed as “hors categorie” or “outside of the classification”. Points are awarded to the first riders over the top of each climb – the tougher the climb, the more the points. The leader in the KOM competition wears a white jersey with large red polka-dots.
• Other Competitions – Prizes are also available for the leaders of the Team Competiton – a separate GC based on the total time of the first three riders on each team (exclusive of bonuses) on each stage. The leader of the Best Young Rider competiton (the highest placed GC rider under the age of 25) wears a White Jersey. A purely subjective assessment by the race officials determines who has the honour of wearing a red race number as the leader in the Most Aggressive Rider competition – awarded to the most stubborn of the break-away specialists. There is also the unofficial “competition” not to be the Lanterne Rouge – the rider in last place on the GC.
TYPES OF STAGES
Each racing day, the riders race one of the following types of race:
• A Mass Start race – most of the stages of the Tour are mass start races. The riders all start off together to cover a set route from one town to another. The stages in the first week to 10 days of the Tour are normally relatively flat. Later in the Tour, stages will involve riding up and down mountain passes. The winner of the stage is the first rider across the finish line.
• An Individual time Trial – Each year the Tour will include about 3 stages that are run as individual time trials. In an ITT, the riders start out one at a time at a set interval. Each rider is timed separately from the moment he is scheduled to start until he crosses the finish line. The rider with the lowest time for the day is the winner of the stage. In 2004, the first long ITT will be run very late in the race on a course up the Alpe d'Huez on stage 16.
• A Team Time Trial – The TDF usually includes a Team Time Trial stage. A TTT is like an ITT except that in a TTT, all members of a team start off together. If all goes well, the team rides together over the whole course and all members of the team are credited with the same time as that of the 5th team member to cross the finish line. Riders who cannot keep up with their team-mates, however, are on their own and will be timed individually. In a controversial decision, the Tour organizers have decreed that in 2004 no rider on a team that finishes within the time limit on the TTT stage will lise more than 2.5 minutes on the General Classification regardless of how far back the team finishes from the winning team.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
There are 21 teams taking part in the Tour this year, and there are 183 riders in total. Each team is supported by team cars that drive behind riders offering spare tires, wheels, and whole bikes in case of accidents. The person who usually drives the team car is the head coach, or director for that team and is known in French terms as "Directeur Sportiff".
Each rider or lead rider in a team's training protocol is so devised by his coaches that it is ensured that he peaks at the start of the Tour. Peaking means reaching ones highest and most optimum performance point that year, when he's most likely to achieve his maximum for that year. This is an interesting subject in sports science called Periodization.
Interesting thing about the Tour is that, as Phil Ligett remarked on Versus TV the other day, the Tour is the single most prestigious race in a cyclist's career, and that you may or may not be employed if you win a lot of other races. Once you win a stage in the Tour, you stay employed for sure!