Tour de France 2022: the main keys to understanding and following the stages of the Grande Boucle

Are you intrigued by all this fervor, for three weeks, around a simple bike race and you want to understand it better? This article is made for you ! If the Tour de France is the third most watched sporting event in the world on television, it is not only because you can admire magnificent landscapes. According to the sprints, the passes, and the different challenges, a Grande Boucle is much more than that. In eight questions and answers, franceinfo: sport gives you the opportunity to have all the keys in hand to follow the stages of the legendary event.

Why do some riders wear different jerseys from their teammates?

On the event, in addition to stage victories, participants hunt distinctive jerseys. Yellow rewards the leader of the general individual time classification, that is to say the one who has spent the fewest hours on the bike since the start. Green confirms the rider who dominates the general classification by points: these are awarded at each finish and during intermediate sprints (placed during the stage). The plain stages being richly endowed (50 points at the finish against 30 for the winner of a high mountain stage), the green jersey is the prerogative of versatile sprinters, capable of getting over the bumps.

Jonas Vingegaard (best youngster's white jersey), Tadej Pogacar (leader's yellow jersey), Mark Cavendish (points classification green jersey) and Wout Poels (best climber's polka dot jersey), on July 18, 2021, on the roads of Tour de France. (THOMAS SAMSON / AFP)

The white jersey with red polka dots is awarded to the climber who has scored the most points at the top of the passes, climbs and arrivals at altitude. Finally, the white jersey celebrates precocious talents. It is worn by the rider aged 25 or less, in the current year, with the highest overall ranking. Note also the presence of all the national jerseys, in the colors of the country of the runner crowned national champion. The same goes for the famous rainbow jersey that distinguishes the reigning world champion. Julian Alaphilippe not being present, you will not have the opportunity to see this jersey this year on the roads of the Tour.

Roller, climber, puncher… What are the different types of runners?

The sprinter checks off the so-called plain stages, with few slopes, in the hope of a massive sprint finish. Conversely, a climber identifies days in the mountains, rich in elevation gain. A good rider aims for time trials or long and slightly hilly stages. The puncheur, generally endowed with a good burst of speed, looks for uneven courses or which end with a short climb, where he can place a devastating acceleration. Finally, the adventurer is illustrated by his multiple attacks to place himself in the breakaways, even if it means embarking on a long solitary effort.

The runner’s profile is largely based on his intrinsic physical qualities, which he then works on. Little chance for example that a cyclist of 1m80 and 90 kg shines in the mountains, he will be rather comfortable on the cobblestones or in sprints. In the mountains, small, light builders will be more to their advantage.

How are the passes classified?

The slopes of the Tour de France are classified in five distinct divisions: fourth, third, second and first category, from the easiest to the most difficult, and an “hors category” level reserved for the most difficult climbs. The length, the difference in height between the bottom of the climb and the summit, the steepness of the slope but also the positioning of the difficulty during the day are taken into account.

Slovenian Primoz Roglic crosses, in second position, the finish line of the 17th stage at the Col de la Loze, September 16, 2020. (CHRISTOPHE PETIT-TESSON/AP/SIPA)

In 2016, Thierry Gouvenou, technical director of the race, detailed to AFP the subtleties of the calculation of the classification of the passes. “We start from the percentage (of the slope) squared and we multiply by the distance.” The figure obtained makes it possible to obtain the classification. Non-category climbs exceed 600 points, first category passes are between 600 and 300 points, second category passes between 300 and 150 points. Of course, the more difficult a pass, the more points it brings to the runners in the mountain classification.

Why do some manage to escape and others do not?

During each stage, the teams draw up strategies. There are different reasons for runners to start at the front. First, go for a victory of course or gain time to jump in the standings to get closer to the yellow jersey. Sending a runner to the front also makes it possible to endanger the wearers of distinctive jerseys, and thus push their formations to lead the tempo at the head of the peloton to catch up with it.

Another motivation, much less sporting: the breakaway to show the jersey, which consists of fleeing without hope of winning, but only to place the tunic and therefore the name of the sponsor under the eyes of the cameras.

The Cofidis team during the pre-race brief, July 8, 2019, on the Tour de France.  (MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP)

In cycling, an “exit voucher” designates the tacit authorization of the peloton to escape. Several criteria come into play, starting with the general classification. If the breakaway poses a threat to the leaders, there is no chance of seeing him clear off without a reaction from the peloton. The team of the leader of the general classification can also decide to tolerate a breakaway in order to spend a quieter day at the back, leaving the other formations to take care of the train. A rider who rides on his native land may be offered this exit voucher, but on condition that he is not too well placed, and that the other teams have not targeted this stage…

Authorization to start at the front is not worth a pass to reach the finish first. The fate of the breakaway lies in the hands of the peloton, which can decide at any time to launch the offensive to condemn the leading men. A team can indeed drive hard, either to give its sprinter a chance to win, or, if it’s the yellow jersey, so as not to offer some breakaways the opportunity to get closer to the general classification.

Why does a peloton move faster than a single cyclist?

The scenario is classic on plain events: a group takes off, counts up to ten minutes ahead of the peloton, lets go of its last strength but is finally swallowed up as it approaches the finish line. Wind resistance explains the peloton’s incomparable advantage over a breakaway.

A rider hiding in the center or at the back of the peloton will suffer from much less wind resistance than their counterpart in the front. He will therefore make less effort, will be able to save himself before taking over from his teammates. Conversely, in a breakaway of a few units, the riders, less sheltered from the wind, expend more energy to maintain the same speed.

The Jumbo Visma team takes control of a group of riders, on the 7th stage of the Tour de France 2021. (THOMAS SAMSON / AFP)

Based on “Robert Chapatte’s theorem”, named after a former runner converted into a sports journalist, the cycling community often announces the winner of a runner who breaks away alone if he has a one-minute lead over his first pursuers at ten kilometers from the finish.

Leader, captain, gregario… What are the roles of each?

Each team has eight riders, engaged with very distinct roles. The most experienced often assumes the function of “road captain”: he advises the youngest, calms his teammates in the event of the unexpected and takes care of the leader. The latter, who is aiming for the general classification on time, is one of the protected riders, just like the sprinter who chases victories in the sprint.

Men in the shadows, the “gregarios” are responsible for fetching water cans or raincoats for their teammates, waiting for their leader or sprinter if they die or are unhooked, reassembling them at the head of the platoon to protect them from a break…

In the event of a sprint finish, a “train” of several runners forms, about three kilometers from the line, to take the sprinter to a hellish pace. The runners move away one after the other until only the sprinter and his “pilot fish” remain on the road, the latter moving away about 300 meters before the end.

Why does the wind make a stage tricky?

Every morning, the teams have a ritual: check the strength of the wind and its direction. In the event of a headwind, the chances of a breakaway forming are reduced. A tailwind will result in a very fast paced day. Things get complicated in the event of a side wind, favorable to the formation of edges during a flat stage with long flat straights.

In this situation, to shelter from the wind, the riders spread out over the entire width of the road, forming a fan. If the wind comes from the left, the first cyclist places himself on the left of the road, the next shifts slightly downwards to his right, and so on. Once the bitumen is occupied up to its edge, the riders have no choice but to ride behind the fan and find themselves exposed to the wind.

If the fan accelerates, the men in the back are trapped and a breakout is bound to occur as they will not be able to ride as fast as those sheltered from the wind. To limit damage, delayed runners should, as soon as possible, position themselves fanned out to try to return once they are riding in a less exposed area.

Is there a maximum time to reach the finish?

Cyclists have a time limit to complete each stage, otherwise they will be eliminated. A different time barrier is calculated each day, based on the winner’s arrival time, depending on the difficulty of the course and the winner’s average speed. For example, during a step “of great difficulty” at the coefficient 4, the time granted to the last corresponds to 7% of the real time of the first if the average mileage of the latter is less than or equal to 30 km/h but 10% if his speed is between 32 and 33 km/h.

During the ninth stage of the Tour 2021, coefficient 4, between Tignes and Cluses, marked by dantesque weather, seven sprinters crossed the line after the deadline. Ben O’Connor had completed the 144.9 kilometers in 4h26’43”, at an average speed of 32 to 33 km/h, which granted an additional 37’20” of delay.

The downgraded runners had not been able to hang on to the gruppetto, this peloton of cyclists which forms as soon as the road rises in the mountains. In a spirit of solidarity, the members of a gruppetto, often sprinters but also team members who have done their share of the day’s work with their leader, take turns to set the tempo.

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