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Dispatches : Athletes

Tour de France 101

This year’s Tour de France has proven mysterious to even the most knowledgeable cycling fanatics, with both pre-Tour favorites Alberto Contador and Chris Froome out of the race due to heavy crashes. So we imagine that to the outsider, the race must seem almost incomprehensible. Presenting a beginner’s guide to the world’s most important cycling stage race.

#1: Does the race take place exclusively in France? 

Nope. It often starts in a nearby country, a tradition that dates to 1954, when the race set off in Amsterdam. This year, it began with three days in England, starting in Yorkshire and ending in London.

The Tour frequently passes into neighboring countries throughout the event, especially the mountains of Italy and Spain. This year’s edition also swung through Belgium for what became a contentious and slippery day on the cobbles.

#2: How many racers compete?

A total of 198 racers line up at the start. There are 22 teams, with nine riders per team. Throughout the event, racers drop out because of injuries. Riders must also finish within a certain percentage of time of the stage winner or they’ll be eliminated from the race. The percentage of time varies, depending on the difficulty of the stage.

The race jury can grant exceptions to riders who don’t make the time cut. And if more than 20 percent of riders miss the time limit, generally they are exempted. That’s why, on mountainous stages, you’ll often see a large group of riders, known as the autobus, group together at the back of the field—it’s safety in numbers.

#3: How does this stage racing stuff work? How do you win?

Each rider is timed on every one of the 21 stages. A rider’s time is added up from stage to stage for an overall elapsed time. The racer with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks wins the race.

So it’s possible to lose a lot of time one day, make it up throughout the length of the race, and still win. Maybe the best example came in 1958, when Frenchman Charly Gaul started the final day in the Alps 15 minutes behind but, thanks to atrocious weather, made up all but 28 seconds of that time. He went on to win the overall.

#4: Is it true that a racer can win the overall without ever winning a stage?

Yes. While it’s considered good style to win at least one stage en route to an overall win, it’s not a requirement. All that’s necessary is a racer finish with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks. 

Only six racers in 101 editions of the race have won the Tour without winning a stage. Spaniard Óscar Pereiro did it most recently in 2006, while three-time Tour champ Greg Lemond took his final victory in 1990 without a stage win.

#5: Are there time bonuses for winning a stage?

Through 2008, time bonuses were awarded for both pre-set sprint intervals along a day’s course and for the fastest finishers. Intermediate sprints earned the top three racers 6, 4, and 2 seconds, respectively, while the first three racers to finish a stage took 20-, 12-, and eight-second bonuses.

Race director Christian Prudhomme eliminated the bonuses in 2009, arguing that the true winner of the race should be person who clocks the actual fastest elapsed time. Both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España still award bonuses, and some argue that the extra incentives make for more exciting races. 

#6: What’s with all the special jerseys?

The yellow jersey, or maillot jaune in French, indicates the rider with the fastest elapsed overall time in the race at any given point during the Tour. It is awarded after each day’s finish. If a racer wins a stage but isn’t the overall leader, he is awarded a maillot jaune for his win, but he won’t get to wear it the next day, the overall leader will. 

Concurrent to the overall race, there are three additional competitions in the Tour. The green jersey, or maillot vert, is awarded based on a point system for winning sprint stages. The racer who wears the polka dot jersey, or maillot à pois, is called the King of the Mountains. He earns the jersey by accruing points for reaching the tops of designated mountains first. And the young rider classification is awarded to the racer under 26 with the fastest elapsed time, who wears the white jersey, or maillot blanc

#7: Is the course the same every year? How do they decide on the route?

The course, often referred to as the parcours, changes every year, though given the long history of the race, towns and climbs cycle in and out from year to year. Towns bid to host race starts and finishes, which can bring in great revenue because of the influx of teams and spectators. The course is announced each fall, usually in October, in a gala celebration.

#8: How fast do the racers go?

On flats, the peloton moves along at around 30 miles per hour. On mountain stages, racers can descend in excess of 60 miles per hour. The fastest Tour de France on record was in 2005, in which Lance Armstrong averaged 25.882 miles per hour over the 2,241-mile course.

#9: Why do they shave their legs?

Arguably the biggest reason racers shave is because, in case of a crash, it’s easier to clean the wounds with no hair. Shaved legs are also said to be more aerodynamic, and though some people claim the differences are insignificant, Specialized recently refuted that. And if they’re honest, most cyclists will tell you shaving is also about identity.

#10: How do they go to the toilet?

Given that Tour riders can spend five or more hours a day in the saddle, it’s reasonable to wonder how they take care of business. Generally, the peloton will agree to stop somewhere discreet alongside the road for a “nature break,” when riders can go without being left behind. In some cases, if the race is on, riders will just go from the saddle, with other racers taking care to stay out of the way.

#11: How much money do you get if you win?

Winners of each day’s stage are awarded €22,500 (~$30,000), while the team time trial pays €25,000 (~$34,000). Overall winners of the green jersey and polka dot jersey take home €25,000 each, while the overall winner of the white jersey gets €20,000 ($27,000). There’s also an award for the most aggressive rider (€20,000), which is decided by a jury of eight cycling specialists, and for the fastest overall team (€50,000).

The grand prize for the racer who takes top honors at the Tour de France is €450,000 ($610,000), though traditionally he will share it among his team.

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Tour d'Attrition

The 2014 Tour de France was turned on its head once again Monday after Alberto Contador crashed on the rain-slicked descent of the day’s second-rated climb and was forced to abandon the race.

Though he remounted the bike after the crash and tried to soldier on, he eventually succumbed and discovered later at the hospital that he had fractured his tibia.

The two-time Tour champ’s departure comes just five days after Chris Froome went down on wet roads and was also forced to quit. Contador and Froome took the start line on July 5 as the favorites, though Vincenzo Nibali and his team Astana commandeered the race lead in Stage 2. Contador and Froome were the only two racers in this year’s Tour who had previously won the event, and their departures ensure that the race will have a new champion.

After last Wednesday’s treacherous cobbled stage, there was much handwringing over whether or not the pavé has a rightful place in the Tour. Critics argued that the rough roads were too dangerous for the high speeds and nervous racing of the Tour and that they put the lightweight GC contenders at too much risk.  

The whole discussion misses the point, especially in light of Contador’s crash. On Stage 5, it wasn’t the cobbles that caused the chaos, but the rain: Froome, Valverde, and Van Garderen all went down on rain-soaked smooth pavement.

Similarly, the wet roads and heavy rain surely contributed to bringing Contador down. In the same way that no one is likely to argue that the race should skip the mountains in the name of rider safety, there shouldn’t even be a conversation about whether cobbles are appropriate.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme put it best after Froome’s unfortunate crash. He said he was sad to see the Brit leave the race, but maintained that the winner of the Tour de France must be a complete rider

A bit of luck helps, too.

And as always, one rider’s misfortune is another’s advantage. With both Froome and Contador gone, Nibali, who was already looking ready for the fight, now has to be considered the top contender to win the Tour de France. The Italian was expected to grapple with Contador on today’s final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, but with the Spaniard out, Nibali rode away with the race to regain the yellow jersey and consolidate his lead. He now sits two minutes and 23 seconds ahead. 

Other, lesser favorites also benefited, including American Tejay Van Garderen, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Omega Pharma’s up-and-comer Michael Kwiatowski, Dutchman Bauke Mollema, and Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck. All of those racers moved up the standings.

After Nibali, Team Sky is arguably the biggest beneficiary of Contador’s departure. When Chris Froome went out of the race, many questioned whether Sky had made a mistake leaving home Bradley Wiggins.

However the team rallied around super-domestique Richie Porte, and the Aussie has ridden consistently to silence the doubters and move to second overall on GC. Besides, given how harsh the race has been to past Tour winners, Wiggins may be lucky to be sitting comfortably at home.

With the two biggest favorites out, it’s easy to write this race off as over. And it’s true that Nibali now seems a shoo-in for the win. But given the tumult of the first 10 days of racing, the only thing that seems certain about this Tour is that nothing is certain.

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Fact-Checking Outside’s Altitude Training Tips

No matter what I read about tackling a high-altitude race, I wasn’t convinced that minor training tweaks could actually affect my result. And as a fact checker for Outside magazine, I couldn’t resist the chance to test our online team’s fitness advice when I ran a 26.2-mile race in Leadville, Colorado, last month.

Maybe it was an altruistic pursuit, but it’s more likely that I needed an outlet for my growing nerves. Because Leadville is high (in at least one way I could confirm). The town is wedged between Rocky Mountain 14ers at 10,152 feet, and the course starts climbing right away.

Us mere mortals were resigned to hiking the inclines as the trail weaved toward the halfway point at Mosquito Pass (13,185 feet) where wind speeds hovered around 30 mph. To put it in perspective, climbers launch most Mount Rainier (14,409 feet) summit bids from Camp Muir, which sits at 10,080 feet. You know, the same height at which pilots used to tell you it was okay to turn on approved electronic devices. High.

So how does Outside recommend tackling the highest marathon in the United States? And more importantly, does our advice work?

“Avoid racing between 24 to 72 hours at altitude and instead head up the night or morning before.”

To avoid the ill effects of altitude on race day, we recommend heading up one to three weeks ahead of time to get acclimated. If that’s not doable, then avoid the window where symptoms typically set in: between 24-72 hours of exposure.

Since hanging out in Colorado for a week wasn’t something I could pull off, I got to Leadville 12 hours before the gun. Surprisingly, I felt no effects of the altitude (trust me, I was looking for it), but it definitely took a mental toll because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Aim to spend four or more hours at 5,000-plus feet a few times in the month leading up to the race.”

Having experience training at altitude helps. When I moved to Santa Fe (7,000 feet), I was aware of the thin air the second I got out of the car. But three months of training here gave me a huge advantage over my fellow Midwestern competitors. On the course I met a guy from Oklahoma (as we were walking one of the ascents), and he mentioned that the tallest “mountain” he could find topped out at 1,400 feet. He’d never breathed air so thin, much less tried to run in it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Be sure to prepare mentally, as your race pace will be slower and dehydration sets in quicker.”

I’m pretty good at drinking water. I even nixed my usual night-before beer because Outside (for once) doesn’t recommend drinking booze. Starting the race hydrated is easy enough, but staying that way is a bit tougher. I took a few sips of water every 10 minutes or so, but it wasn’t sufficient to keep headaches at bay. As pressure built at the nape of my neck and temples, however, a quick chug of water reversed the advancing pain and allowed me to keep trudging on.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Rather than trying to maintain your typical pace, consciously slow yourself down to avoid blowing up.” 

Unlike a sea-level marathon where a wall is expected late in the race (if ever), at altitude you might not know you’re bonking until you’re delirious and puking in the trees. For many, myself included, a finish at high altitude is as good as a win. I overheard the following advice on the course:

1. Don't do anything stupid. 
2. Just finish. 

One guy said this to another shortly after we passed a runner dry heaving around the two-mile mark. The altitude combined with the gnarly terrain (think snow, loose rock, mud) was responsible for a few bloody knees and faces as runners navigated the steep slopes. No need to do anything crazy, just keep it moving. 

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

And if all else fails?

“If you still end up feeling like crap the whole race, don’t sweat it. It’s not you—it’s genetics.”

I managed to finish on two feet, arms sticky with electrolyte water and a new tan line resembling a capped-sleeved wrestler's singlet. But I finished. I was waiting for symptoms of altitude to hit, but they never did.

The Bottom Line:

So after completing this 6.5-hour investigation, my fact check found that we’ve offered sage advice on executing a high-altitude jaunt, sans hypoxia and with enough stamina left to Instagram post-race. No noses growing here: it turns out (surprise!) that Outside's experts know their stuff.

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Belgian Bloodletting

Chris Froome, winner of the 2013 Tour de France and odds-on favorite for overall victory in 2014, crashed twice on Stage 5 of the Tour and abandoned the race. 

After falling at kilometer 35, the Briton remounted and regained contact with the peloton. Some 50 kilometers later, however, he hit the deck again and though he quickly got to his feet, he winced in pain. After a chat with a Team Sky doctor, he climbed into the team car and called it quits.

There’s no word yet on his injuries, but Froome started the day in a wrist brace resulting from another crash on Stage 4. Following his second crash today, the Brit clutched at that same wrist as if he had exacerbated the damage. 

Froome fared the worst of the Tour favorites, but he wasn’t the only one who suffered. American Andrew Talansky took a tumble, and though Garmin-Sharp rode valiantly to put him back in the race, he lost 2:01 to race leader Vincenzo Nibali by the finish. Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen also went down and both conceded 2:09. 

And though he never crashed, two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador struggled in the wet weather and lost 2:32 to Nibali to finish the day in a dismal 19th on GC. 

Ever since the route for Stage 5 was announced, there’s been no end to the debates and criticism of including sections of rough cobbles in the Tour. Many teams complained that the stage’s nine sections of pavé, totaling 15.4 kilometers, put the GC contenders at too much risk as the treacherous roads are infamous for causing mechanicals and injuries.

The consternation continued even this morning, when Tour officials made the last-minute decision to cut out two cobbled sections, deeming them too dangerous because of the day’s heavy rain.

Ironically, it wasn’t the cobbles that wreaked so much havoc in the race but the wet weather. Froome’s two crashes took place on smooth asphalt, well before the cobbles had begun. And Valverde and Van Garderen also went down on tarmac roundabouts. Talansky was the only favorite to crash in the pavé, when he overcooked a slippery corner and knocked over a spectator.

But maillot jaune Vincenzo Nibali and his Team Astana expunged any argument that the cobbles are too savage and hazardous for the featherweight top contenders. The Italian, who is about the size of Contador and Talansky but is known as an excellent bike handler, played a perfect tactical game and powered ably through the toughest sections to not only retain the race lead but put time into every one of his opponents. He finished in third place alongside teammate Jakob Fuglsang, just 19 seconds behind Dutch cobble-specialist Lars Boom, who is not a GC favorite.

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