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Le Tour Made Clear: the World's Greatest Bike Race turns 100

Riders in formation at the Tour de France | Credit: Marc Kjerland

Manhattan resident John Eustice, a pioneer American on the European pro racing circuit, has been a two-time United States Professional Champion. A former member of Transportation Alternatives' Board of Directors, Eustice believes in racing as a means of promoting acceptance of cycling in communities. He has covered 16 Tour de France's for ESPN and ABC Sports and ASO, and remains active in media commentary on the sport.

Featured Image: Marc Kjerland

A bit of history is needed to better understand the wild, swirling mystery that is the Tour de France, currently enjoying its 100th edition. Le Tour was begun as a publicity stunt in 1903, product of a newspaper war. L’Auto, now L’Equipe, the daily French sports paper, whose yellow cover page is the reason for the famed Yellow Jersey, invented an extreme competition designed to capture the imagination of the public and expand their circulation throughout the entire country. It worked brilliantly, attracting artists, musicians, writers, coal miners and farmers to its fan base. Le Tour is high and low: a three-week opera full of arias, every bit as seedy as the old Times Square, more brutal than pro boxing, yet blessed with a natural stadium that is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It’s a treasure trove of content for journalists and its written history is deep and rich.

John Eustice as a young pro racer in France, ca. 1981

The author as a young pro cyclist in France (circa 1981)

Pro cyclists are every bit as violent, aggressive and driven as NFL players – with the intentional violence channeled in a different manner and the unintentional (crashes) often much worse. “Les coureurs sont tous fous!”  - The racers are all crazy – is a century-old French saying that remains the absolute truth. Famously labeled as les forçats de la route (Prisoners of the road or chain gang) in the early 1920’s, cycling has always drawn from the rough and ready, willing to undergo unimaginable suffering, deprivation, danger and cruel management in order to win better lives for themselves.

The Tour is won, very simply, by the man who makes it to the final finish line on the Champs Elysees in less total time than anyone else in the race. Every report of a cycling event has the peloton (main field of riders) as a reference point and any Tour report begins with the Yellow Jersey position. Riders are either in, ahead or behind the peloton. Now, say our hero (Transportation Alternatives' Executive Director) Paul White is racing le Tour and on the first day, escapes the peloton and wins, alone in Ajaccio, by one-minute ahead of the everyone else. The peloton, from front to back, will all be awarded the same time as they are considered “together” but Paul will now be leading the Tour by one-minute and will be awarded the Yellow Jersey. The next day they all begin together and Paul’s 9-man team is ordered to ride at the head of the peloton, keeping the pace high, protecting Paul in their drafts, controlling (preventing from getting an insurmountable lead) any attacks (breakaways) that threaten his lead.  It’s hard, exhausting work, but everyday in Yellow is of tremendous publicity benefit to the team. Think of the riders pulling on the front for Paul as NFL Linebackers or FIFA Halfbacks- crucial members of the team that make goal scoring (race wins) possible. No man can win the Tour without a strong team behind him.  Alas, Paul’s team is not strong enough, and while he finishes in the peloton, another rider escapes and wins alone, with a 1:10 lead over the peloton. This rider will now take the Yellow Jersey and his team in turn will have the pressure to defend the next day. Paul is now in second place in the General Classification, ten seconds behind the new leader, but still one-minute ahead of everyone else. His team can now go from defense to offense, and look for ways to get Paul back into Yellow.

Tour de France competitor wearing the coveted yellow jersey.

Tour de France cyclist wearing the coveted Yellow | Image: William Moreice

The true contenders for the final Yellow in Paris are few – these are the real champions, genetic freaks of nature. The list includes the UK’s Chris Froome, Spain’s Alberto Contador, Aussie Cadel Evans and his young and brilliant American teammate Tejay van Garderen, maybe 3-5 other long shots. These riders will be kept hidden in the peloton, protected by their teammates and only unleashed at the crucial moments of the tour. These moments, the beautiful arias of the Tour, are the ones where real time differences can be gained: mountains and time trials, fights against gravity and wind respectively. None of these riders wants the Yellow early in the race. Their eye is on Paris and they allow other teams to fight for it while saving their team energy for the important rendezvous in the Pyrenees and Alps.

The biggest problem for these contenders is the fact that any success in the Tour means global exposure for a racer and his team/sponsors so that every stage (daily race) is ridden with the intensity of the World Championships. Traditionally, the first 10 days of the Tour are the domain of the larger, more powerful sprinter types looking to gain fame before the mountains are served up on the menu and their chances disappear into the clouds. In short, the early stages are completely crazy, dangerous, raced at high speed and full of crashes. The job of the teammates of the contenders for Yellow is to protect their stars. Watch the Tour on TV and look for the groupings of the teams around one another as they try and keep their leaders near the front of the race and away from the dangers in the middle of the peloton.

The Green or Points Jersey was invented to spice up the race and give the sprinters, who lose massive amounts of time in the mountains, a special award. This is my favorite part of the Tour, as the competition, based on points awarded for daily finishing order, not time, is aggressively fought for from start to finish, and often only decided after the final sprint in Paris.  Slovakia’s Peter Sagan is looking to repeat his Green Jersey of last year and is a reference point to follow this year. He’s terrific: tactical, powerful, fast, exciting, young and silly at times, a perfect new star. His Cannondale team has no real Yellow Jersey contenders, so their only job is to get Peter to Paris in Green. Watch for them to line up at the front during the final 30 kilometers of a flat stage to keep the speed high, Peter protected but near the front, and then to progressively accelerate with the aim of launching Peter at 45mph+ towards the finish line. This is known as the “Train” and Cannondale has a great one. Battles between sprinter trains, all vying to get their fast men to the front, are incredible to watch.

Then on the other end of the spectrum are the pure mountain climbers, the light men who fly uphill, provide amazing spectacle, but who may not have the horsepower for the time trials and sharp elbows to stay out of trouble in the wild beginning stages. Their special award is the Mountains or Polka Dot jersey, again on points, but awarded at the top of the climbs.

The legendary Col du Galibier in the French Alps.

The beautiful and punishing Col du Galibier climb | Image: Robbie Shade

And finally, the daily stages, open terrain for riders relieved of team duty for a day, looking to escape the sprinters and their powerful teams. Win one stage in the Tour, hold the Yellow for even one day, and a racer’s life is forever changed.

These are the themes of the Tour, the contenders for Yellow impatiently waiting for their power to be unleashed, the wild competition among the sprinters, the little climbers wishing for the mountains, and always, always the desperate breakaway attempts by lesser riders looking for a day of glory. And there’s more if you want to look. Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, currently racing with a broken pelvis, unwilling to abandon his leader Froome. There’s the looming leadership contest on Team BMC between aging former Tour winner Evans and new hope van Garderen (Evans, somewhat inconveniently, was third in the recent Giro putting him back in the leadership position after having been counted out). And what about Andrew Talansky, the young Miami pit bull on Team Garmin-Sharp who has all of the qualities needed to win? You can dig as deep as you want in the Tour, there’s always something and someone fascinating to watch and follow. Pick a favorite, follow them and have them teach you the Tour. You’ll also learn all about France, with all its stunning beauty, as a wonderful bonus.

Check out Velojoy's "3 NYC Spots to Watch the Tour de France," the race is on now through July 21st.

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