Road Rules

Don't know a peloton from an echelon? Relax-the Tour is complicated. Here's a fast and light summary of how cycling's greatest race is run.

John Bradley

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So who wins?

Tour de France 2004

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The leader in the general classification, a running count of each rider’s cumulative time over the race’s 21 individual legs.

Sounds pretty straightforward.
Not exactly. Pro cycling is a rolling chess match—a mix of strategy, head games, and teamwork—set against a backdrop of superhuman suffering. As with chess, there are a king (the team leader) and several subordinates with specific roles, such as climbing specialists who pace him through the mountains and pawns who fetch water and protect him from wind.

Why don’t the big guns go all out on every stage?
Riders have to pick their moments to break away from the pack—and their rivals must deduce when that will happen and react accordingly. In the mountains, the leaders test one another with attacks—sudden accelerations that can earn them several minutes if their competitors are too tired to respond.

What’s a time trial?
Riders race against the clock—not one another—during these relatively brief hammer sessions that can add minutes to a racer’s overall lead. In this year’s three individual time trials (Prologue, Stages 16 and 19), racers will don aerodynamic gear, set out solo, and blaze to the finish. In the team time trial (Stage 4), the squad rides in formation, and they all receive the time of the fifth man to finish.

Why are the mountain stages so crucial?
The battle for overall victory begins in earnest in the hills. Leaders draft behind their teammates for as long as possible, conserving energy for the final push to the top. But mountains tend to dismantle the peloton—and entire teams. By the ends of these stages, it’s not uncommon to see the top contenders riding in a small lead group with little or no help from their lieutenants.

If victory is all about the lowest cumulative time, how do points come into play?
The points competition is a separate battle within the Tour—one in which the winner wears green, not yellow. Riders earn points based on their placings in a stage or for finishing in the top three in the intermediate sprints—basically, interim finish lines midway through a stage—scattered throughout the race. The point leader rarely factors in the final standings. Last year’s high score: 216 points, by Aussie Baden Cooke, who finished 140th overall.

Can riders be penalized?
Yes. Activities such as hanging on to the team car and riding recklessly can result in deductions from a rider’s points total, overall time, or bank account. The good news: Offenders can recover with time bonuses for finishing in the top three in a stage or intermediate sprint.