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Tour de France: Making sense of the greatest cycling race

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There are only a handful of events in the world that showcase the endurance capabilities of the human body like the Tour de France.

Since its inception over 100 years ago, the tour was the first place for cyclists on the world stage to write their name in the history books as conquerors of the approximately 2,000 mile course and its nearly 200 riders.

From crazy sprints across flat terrain between mountains to breathtaking climbs in the French Alps and Pyrenees, the 24-day trek, which ends along the Champs-Élysées, is always filled with triumphs, disappointments, glory and scandals.

However, understanding how the tour works can be a challenge for those new to the sport. There’s a bunch of jerseys that mean different things, a points system that rewards riders who do outstandingly well at specific things, and other little details that can have a significant impact on racing.

The Tour de France comprises 21 stages that span over 2,000 miles; (photo/Tour de France)

How the Tour de France works

The The Tour de France is a race in 21 stages which pits teams of riders against each other for 24 days a year, usually in July. This year, all but three days of the tour include a stop. The others serve as rest days to give runners a chance to recover.

Each of the 22 teams participating in the tour includes eight riders who work together to achieve various goals throughout the race.

Although runners compete in teams, only one runner wins the race. Most riders participating in the Tour de France do not expect to win the race or even a single stage. Their role is to support the leaders of their teams, whether it’s providing food and hydration or blocking the wind by riding ahead.

The big winner of the Tour de France, winner of the general classification, is the rider with the lowest cumulative time over all of the 21 stages.

While only one person wins the overall standings, there are other titles for racers who specialize in climbing and sprinting, as well as honors for best team and most aggressive racer.

The suits

The Tour de France awards four outstanding jerseys to the race leaders in each category, including yellow, green, polka dot and white.

Tour de France yellow jersey.
The Tour de France Yellow Jersey goes to the rider with the lowest cumulative time over the whole race; (photo/Tour de France)

The yellow jersey, or yellow jersey, is the most prestigious jersey of the tour. The leader of the general classification wears the yellow jersey throughout the race. This means that the rider with the lowest cumulative time at the end of each day starts the next day in yellow. This jersey can change hands several times as the race progresses and often favors riders who excel in the mountains and time trials.

The overall winner of the general classification wins €500,000, or approximately $535,000.

Tour de France white jersey.
The Tour de France White Jersey is awarded to the best young rider; (photo/Tour de France)

The white shirt marks the best youngster in the general classification. Only riders under the age of 25 at the start of the race year are eligible to wear the white jersey. It works the same way as the yellow jersey.

The green jerseycommonly referred to as the points or the sprinter’s jersey, goes to the leader in the points category.

Tour de France green jersey.
The Tour de France Green Jersey is awarded to the rider with the most points. This jersey is also commonly called the sprinter’s jersey; (photo/Tour de France)

The Tour de France awards points towards the green jersey to the first 15 riders who cross the line of the intermediate sprints and the finish of each stage. Stage wins earn the most points. Many riders in search of the green jersey will not try to win mountain stages. They save energy for the apartments so they can rack up as many points as possible without running out.

On flat stages, the winning rider earns 50 points for a stage win. Hilly stages have 30 points and mountainous stages have 20, so it pays to earn flat days. Each rider behind the leader up to 15th place also earns points in descending order. For example, in a sprint stage, the rider who finishes second will earn 30 points, while the rider in 15th place will earn two.

Intermediate sprint and time trial stage wins are worth 20 points each.

The polka dot jersey, a flamboyant favorite of many, goes to the best climber. It is also commonly referred to as the “King of the Mountains” jersey. Like the green jersey, the polka dot jersey goes to the rider who has accumulated the most points during the categorized passages of each stage, which number several dozen.

Points vary from climb to climb depending on the difficulty of each climb and are separate from the overall points towards the green jersey. The climbs are classified from category 4 to category 1, as well as the “Hors category” or super-category, which are too difficult to classify.

Tour de France polka dot jersey.
The Tour de France polka dot jersey is awarded to the best climber; (photo/Tour de France)

The first eight riders to reach the summits of super-category climbs earn points in descending order from 20 to 2. Category 1 climb points go to the first six riders to reach the summit starting at 10 for the winner and falling to 2 for sixth place. .

Four riders earn points ranging from five to one for Category 2 climbs. The first two riders to summit Category 2 climbs earn two points each, and the first rider to summit a Category 4 climb earns a point.

Riders can hold multiple jerseys at the same time. If this happens, the lead runner wears the most prestigious jersey, and the others go to the second-place runner.

Last year, Tadej Pogacar of United Arab Emirates team left with the yellow, white and polka dot jerseys, while Marc Cavendish won the green jersey.

Riders without the honor of a jersey still have other rewards to race for, including individual stage wins, the most aggressive rider award, and top team placings.

The most aggressive racer wears a red license plate, while the best team rides with yellow license plates.

The Tour de France route

The vast majority of the race takes place throughout France, although it sometimes starts in neighboring countries for a few stages before crossing France.

This year the tour begins in Copenhagen on July 1 and includes stops in Belgium, Switzerland and, of course, France. By the end of the race, runners will have covered approximately 2,068 miles.

Each stage brings unique challenges that each rider and team must overcome to stay at or near the front of the peloton. Tour organizers categorize stages as flat, hilly or mountainous.

There are two time trial stages in the Tour de France in 2022. The first starts the event on July 1 and the second the day before the race arrives in Paris. These stages involve runners starting one by one at regular intervals over a short distance.

The first event that opens the tour is just over 8 miles long. The last stretches for just over 25 miles.

Profile of the last time trial stage of the Tour de France in 2022.
The final stage of the Tour de France time trial in 2022 is around 25 miles long; (photo/Tour de France)

Each runner runs alone against the clock to position themselves as the fastest runner. Time trial specialists can save considerable time over their competitors by putting the hammer down during these events.

Runners use custom specialty bikes and clothing to reduce aerodynamic drag as much as possible to ensure they save every millisecond. These courses typically involve hilly terrain where riders stay on the pedals from start to finish.

All other stages of the tour begin with a mass start where most riders come together in a large group, known as the peloton. Whether on flat, hilly or mountainous stages, riding in the peloton helps riders save energy for the opportune moment when they might attack.

The longest leg of the circuit in 2022 is nearly 137 miles. The shortest out of the two time trials is on the final day at 72 miles.

The flat stages, also called sprint stages, don’t have a lot of elevation gain, but they make up for it with explosive ends. The flat stages of the Tour de France are aimed at sprinters, who generally spend the whole day safely in the peloton to protect themselves from the resistance of the wind.

They save their energy for the last part of the stage when they rely on their teammates to put them in a great position to surge from behind and race towards the finish line.

Profile of a plain stage of the Tour de France 2022.
The flat stages of the Tour de France favor sprinters who save their energy for the critical moments of the race when points are awarded; (photo/Tour de France)

The mountain stages test cyclists who specialize in climbing and descending. These stages include thousands of feet of elevation gain on extremely steep inclines, followed by white-knuckle descents that often see riders reach 40 mph or more.

Due to the varied nature of these stages, the field of athletes often widens considerably, with leading runners working in small groups to get ahead while others lose speed and fall back.

The best riders can use the mountain stages to stand out from the rest of the peloton and gain valuable time for their general classification time. Additionally, the top three finishers in each stage other than time trials earn time bonuses of 10, 6, and 4 seconds to their overall overall standings time.

Profile of a mountain stage of the Tour de France.
The mountain stages of the Tour de France include several difficult climbs; (photo/Tour de France)

How to watch the Tour de France

The Tour de France will be broadcast NBC and NBC Sports networks. NBC peacock service and NBC Sports will air live coverage from Phil Liggett and Bob Roll. Cyclists Jens Voigt and Van Velde will also contribute commentary.

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