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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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Just Add Water

It's hot. Time to take to the water. But before you hit the beach, the river, or the bar, make sure you're ready for the sun and the sand. These 10 products will help:  

Battenwear Overhang Shorts ($207)

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Battenwear’s 100 percent cotton Overhang shorts look like casual sixties surf trunks, but they’re cut to move: an extra diamond-shaped panel in the inseam allows for deep knee bends. Add a nylon belt and zippered pocket in the front, and you’ve got the only layer you need for that beach-volleyball-bouldering-BBQ triathlon.

Helinox Chair One ($100)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/helinox-chair-one-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Camp chairs are typically uncomfortable or heavy or clunky—or all of the above. Not the Helinox Chair One. With minimal effort, it transforms from a hoagie-size bag into a sturdy mesh lounger. The aluminum poles are strong enough to hold a 320-pounder, while the chair itself weighs only two pounds. Most important, it’s damned comfortable. Taut shock cord makes the bomber seat feel spring loaded, and the backrest has just the right amount of give.

Carlisle Taboo Paddle ($85)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/carlisle-taboo-paddle-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

You’ll be hard pressed to find a paddle that’s more versatile than the aluminum Carlisle Taboo. Others may weigh less, but the 13-ounce Taboo’s detachable parts let you reconfigure it from a kayak paddle into a 75- or 82-inch SUP stick. Even better: it won’t break the bank.

La Maquina Longboard ($995)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/la-maquina-longboard-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

These days, many surfboards are mass-produced by machines. But most beach communities still have a few dedicated local shapers—guys like Kyle “Juicebox” Johnson, who has been handcrafting longboards in Santa Cruz, California, for the past four years. His La Maquina longboard has the look and feel of a traditional log, but the way it accelerates after takeoff is decidedly modern. Credit the flat nose and wide front half, which increases the planing area as you move up the board. It trims great down the line and still turns like butter.

Jackson Karma RG Kayak ($1,249)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/jackson-karma-rg-kayak-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

The initials in Jackson’s Karma RG kayak stand for “rock gardening”—where paddlers use whitewater skills to play in coastal surf zones. But this boat’s utility goes way beyond dodging submerged boulders and charging sea caves. The flat hull is great for beginners, while deck rigging and a nine-inch rear hatch make it perfect for multi-day river trips.

Alite Meadow Mat ($39)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/alite-meadow-mat-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Sure, a cotton blanket is a decent picnic ground cover—until it gets wet. That’s why we like the Alite Meadow mat for any outing that involves boats or swim trunks. It’s mostly waterproof, looks and feels nicer than a tarp, and features tie-down loops to keep the wind from blowing lunch into the river.

Watershed Goforth Drybag ($100)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/watershed-goforth-drybag-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Watershed makes some of the burliest bags around, so it’s no surprise that the U.S. Navy had it design one for soldiers. The beefed-up Goforth drybag is lined with 420-denier ripstop Cordura and can be strapped to your waist or the rigging of a SUP.

Dafin Fins ($65)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/dafin-fins-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Using rubbers of varying stiffness, designer Andy Cochran formed these exceptionally powerful and lightweight Dafin fins to be rigid and flexible in exactly the right spots. No surprise they’re the official swim fin of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Hydro Flask Growler ($50)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/hydro-flask-growler-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Sunshine and fresh air create a natural thirst for craft beer. They’re also beer’s worst enemies. Thankfully, we discovered the Hydro Flask growler, made from double-walled, vacuum-sealed stainless steel. We were able to fill the 64-ounce vessel the night before a rafting trip and still enjoy pints of cold, hoppy beer at the end of a hot day.

Surf Grass Mat ($40)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/surf-grass-mat-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Peeling off your wetsuit while standing on asphalt or gravel is one 
of the worst things you can do for its longevity. We’ve been known to strip down inside plastic tubs, but the purpose-made Surf Grass mat offers 
a tidier experience. The inch-thick synthetic turf is also good for getting sand off your feet.

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