How to survive Le Gran Boucle (aka Tour de France) widow syndrome - Part 1


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 Hi, my name is Ian, and I am a Tour de France addict.  

I love this time of year.  During these 23 glorious summer days, I prefer to sit in my house and watch lycra-clad, skinny guys ride bikes.  I will sit and watch salt-crusted, exhausted men, ride up and down mountains and along roads lined with sunflower-filled fields for hours on a Saturday or Sunday.  It is my Super Bowl, my World Series, and my NBA and NHL finals all in one.  I don’t get bored, and I don’t skip stages.  

My wife, on the other hand, lasts about two days, and I fully recognize that I bear much of the blame for this.  Early on, I failed to sit down and fully explain the intricacies of the race.  

Taking a step back, I realized how confusing and complicated the different jerseys and competitions, the points, the time gaps and bonuses, and the different stage types could be.   If you are the significant other, roommate, training partner, or concerned parent or friend of a TdF addict, read this four part series.  It will help you communicate with the afflicted individual and help you to understand our odd annual ritual.  Don’t worry, you won’t need to shave your legs to watch if you decide to join us on the couch!  

The jerseys and races within the race. The Tour de France is not about winning a day. It’s not about winning on multiple days. It is about being the best over 23 days….if you want to win the General Classification. Otherwise, you may only need to be the best over five days. Still, another competition consists of barely surviving each day. Yes, it sounds very complicated. Trust me, it’s not. You do not have to be a genius to ride your bike for 21 out of 23 days, averaging over 100 miles per day through the heat, the rain, sometimes snow, up and down mountains, and even after crashes. So, it probably helps to not be overly smart at times. Here are the basics of the races that make up the Tour de France.

General Classification, aka GC, represented by the yellow jersey – The rider with the lowest accumulated time at the end of every stage wins the yellow jersey and wears it for the next stage. The rider with the jersey on the last day wins the race. The color of the jersey comes from the original sponsor, the sports newspaper L’Equipe which was printed on yellow paper. The yellow jersey was selected so the crowds could identify the leader on the road. Here’s how it works. If I finish Stage 1 in 4 hours 52 minutes (4:52:00), Stage 2 in 5:32, and Stage 3 in 3:08, my accumulated time would be 13:32. Since everybody starts each stage at the same time, it only matters when you cross the finish line. If my time is faster than everyone else, I would be awarded the yellow jersey at the conclusion of Stage 3 to wear on Stage 4. Basically, the yellow jersey is an open way of saying, “I am better than all of you, and everyone should just look at me” to the other 197 riders in the race.

Points Classification, aka the Sprinter’s Competition, represented by the green jersey – The rider with the most points at the end of each stage receives the green jersey. Points are awarded at two places during each stage, an intermediate sprint somewhere along the stage and at the finish line. Whomever crosses the line first receives the maximum number of available points. More points are awarded for winning stages classified as flat or hilly stages than mountain stages. No points are awarded on time trial stages. The points competition came into being in 1953 to entice sprinters to participate in the Tour. Since sprinters are notoriously bad climbers, they had little incentive to compete in the Tour other than for the occasional opportunity to win a stage. Let’s face it, a chaotic sprint finish is fun to watch. Nobody will admit it, but the excitement and anticipation of a high-speed crash that sends riders and bikes flying through the air draws out our morbid curiosity and keeps us glued to the television. If it weren’t for the green jersey, we would be forced to endure the slow, boring sprints of the climbers and GC contenders. Yawn!

Mountains Classification, aka King of the Mountains (KOM), represented by the polka dot jersey – The rider with the most KOM points at the end of each stage is awarded the polka dot jersey.  KOM points are offered at the summit of categorized climbs.  Climbs are categorized by difficulty (steepness and length) with Cat 4 being the easiest and Beyond Category (HC) the hardest.  Cat 4 climbs offer 1 point for the first rider across the KOM line.  Cat 3 climbs offer 2 points for the KOM winner and 1 point for second place.  Cat 2 climbs offer 5 points for first, 3 for second, 2 for third, and 1 for fourth.  Cat 1 climbs offer 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 1 for first through sixth respectively, and HC climbs offer 25, 20, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, and 2 points for first through tenth across the KOM line.  If the stage ends on a mountaintop finish of a Cat 1, 2, or HC climb, the points are doubled.  The KOM competition allows riders who can climb well but may not be good enough at time trials to compete for the yellow jersey to still be able to compete in the race.  Also, the competition for the polka dot jersey often leads to attacks during mountain stages that animate the race when the GC riders are all watching each other.   Young Riders Competition, represented by the white jersey – The white jersey competition is for riders who are 25 years old or younger on 1 January.  The rules of this competition are the same as the GC competition but only for the younger riders.  This competition often showcases the riders that will be GC contenders in the future.  In recent years, the white jersey competition has been pretty exciting, with the winners breaking into the top 10 on GC.  While the young guns don’t generally have much bearing on the GC competition in the last week, they go at each other hard.  What they lack in experience and tactics, they make up for in willingness to suffer like dogs.  

Team Classification, represented by a yellow background on the riders’ numbers – The team classification has been awarded since 1930.  It is awarded daily and is based on time like the yellow and white jerseys.  The team classification is calculated by adding the times of the three best riders from that team per stage.  This rewards teams that have a number of strong riders, even if one rider is not in the lead of any individual category.  Some people wonder why this classification even matters.  Oh, but it does.  The team classification standings determine where in the support caravan that the team car is located.  That is hugely important if a key rider needs assistance during the stage.  We’ll get to that on part 2, though.  

The Combativity Prize, aka the Most Aggressive Rider, represented by a red background on the rider’s number – This is one of my favorite competitions because it rewards audacity.  The Combativity Prize is awarded daily by a panel of eight judges to the rider who causes the most commotion during the day.  At the end of the Tour the panel awards the Super Combativity Prize to the rider deemed to have been the biggest animator of the race.  Generally, it is a rider who get in the day’s breakaway and constantly attacks the other riders.  On occasion, this prize is given to a rider who simply endured the most.  In the past few years, the award has been given to riders who were involved in horrific accidents and got back on their bikes to finish the stage.  A few years ago, a French media car hit two riders, Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha, sending them flying off their bikes into a barbed wire fence.  Hoogerland and Flecha’s kits (that’s what we call our cycling clothes) were shredded, leaving them with barely enough to cover the required parts.  Yet, they both got up, after getting help from several people to untangle them from the barbed-wire fence, got wrapped in gauze, got back on their bikes, and finished the remaining 40 miles of the stage.  They were awarded the combativity prize jointly on that day.

The Lanterne Rouge – This is for the rider who finishes the Tour last overall, and it is not an actual Tour prize.  However, like Mr. Insignificant in the NFL Draft, the Lanterne Rouge winner usually receives appearance fees for post-Tour criterium races around France.  Finishing last is much harder than it sounds.  Each stage has a time cut-off that depends on the winner’s finishing time and the type of stage.  Mountain stages have more generous time cuts than flat stages, and if a rider misses the time cut, he is out of the race.  It doesn’t matter if it is the 1st or 21st stage of the race.  Often the Lanterne Rouge is a young rider on his first Tour, a rider who has suffered a crash early on, or a rider who must put in a lot of work for the team early in stages.   That is it for Part 1.  During Part 2, we will cover the team aspects of the Tour de France and the different types of riders.  Maybe you’ll be able to identify with one yourself.   So, try to remember that if you see your friend or significant other kitting up (putting on his or her cycling gear) only to sit on the couch, think of it like putting on your favorite Tom Brady jersey to watch a Sunday game.