A Tour de France Primer

Today is the first rest day of the 2002 Tour de France (there is another scheduled for next Monday). If you are riding a bicycle 3300 kilometers (around 2050miles) in three weeks, you might want to rest a day or so. But since the real race begins in the Pyrenees later this week and since so many Americans have no idea what is going on over there–just that Lance Armstrong, a Texas boy–is the favorite, I thought I’d skip my day off to present a little Tour de France primer.

What is a peloton?

The French word peloton means platoon. For bicycle racing purposes, it is the pack. The peloton is a moving village of 189 souls (21 teams of nine riders) at the beginning of the tour. As the  race progresses on its absurdly grueling way, some riders, victims of crashes, illness, or injury will abandon (leave the tour in the middle of a stage) or be listed as non participant (not starting a day’s stage). There is something about the word “abandon” that makes a tour dropout seem especially sad to me.

What’s with the colors of the shirts?

Each team, of course, has its own uniform colors. And you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Sometimes the Spanish team Once wears bright yellow, sometimes pink. Credit Agricole is in green and white. And the U.S. Postal Service team of all-American hero Lance Armstrong is dressed in the predictible red, white, and blue.

But there are also jersey colors that denote national championships. There is a different, stars and stripes version of a red, white, and blue jersey for the U.S. champion. And the German champion wears a red, black, and yellow jersey. These will have the sponsors and logos of the rider’s team, just on a special jersey denoting his championship. And the defending world champion has special stripes in a band on his sleeve.

And finally, the Tour de France results each day produce wearers of special colored jerseys that denote the leader in the general classification (GC), the yellow jersey or maillot jeune; points (for the sprinters), the green jersey; king of the mountains (climbing), the polka dot jersey (big red polka dots on white); and best young (25 years old or younger) rider, the white jersey.

The yellow jersey is the most coveted. But it is really only important who is wearing it on the podium in Paris, as Laurent Fignon well knows. (He lost the 1989 race by 8 seconds on a time trial on the last day to American Greg Lemond after leading by 50 seconds prior to that last stage.)

What is the lanterne rouge?

This is, perhaps, my favorite little oddity. Think back to when trains had cabooses. There’d be a red lantern hanging off the back. Thus, on the Tour de France, the last rider in the GC is the lanterne rouge (red lantern) of the peloton. The current lantern rouge is Christophe Oriole of AG2R Prevoyance (in his three prior tours he finished 67, 111, and did not finish).

How does one guy win a race of teams?

It may be just a bit too difficult to explain in one little column, but the main point is, the team is there to gain the greatest exposure for its sponsor. Think of each team as a NASCAR pit crew, with the driver being the team leader. Think of the stages of the race as laps of an auto race.


Some team leaders are sprinters. Their teams are trying to help their leaders win stages (be in the lead at the end of the lap) gaining points and podium time to give exposure to their sponsors. These teams may have a GC rider, but the teams expend so much energy protecting and leading out their sprinters that, except for the remarkably strong team against less-than-remarkable competition, it is unlikely the GC rider will be in the hunt for the yellow jersey at the end of the tour.


Some team leaders are GC riders who have a legitimate chance to come out on top. Their teams conserve energy the first week, allowing the sprinters to have their fun. They spend the time protecting the team leader from difficulty in the peloton. Then they work with the leader in the mountains to help him preserve energy until the last climb of the day, where he is expected to create space between himself and the other GC riders.



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