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By Alex Trickett

It's the biggest annual sporting event in the world. And it starts in London for the first time on 7 July.

But for most Britons, the Tour de France remains a mystery.

No longer. Here's a beginner's guide to cycling's showpiece.

WHAT'S INVOLVED?

Mixing London with France
Cyclist competes with a London taxi over the prologue route

A leisurely 3,550 km (or 2,200 mile) bike ride around France and neighbouring countries. That's roughly the distance from London to Cairo or Tel Aviv and an incredible 15m people line the route.

Some 189 riders will set off from Greenwich in 21 teams of nine, but many will have dropped out by the time the race finishes on the Champs Elysee in Paris on 29 July.

By then, the survivors will have taken part in 20 gruelling "stages" and a "prologue" through the streets of London, with only two "rest days" to nurse their aching limbs.

They will average a staggering 40km/h (25 mph) over the course, often riding much, much faster than that.

ARE ALL STAGES THE SAME?

No. There are four different types of stage, all with its own particular challenges.

  • Prologue: Not classified as a full stage, this is a short (10km or less) individual time trial (see below) used to decide who has the honour of being the race leader the next day.

    TOUR BY NUMBERS
    Eddy Merckx (left) with Lance Armstrong
    10: Fewest number of Tour finishers - in 1919
    34: Most stage wins - by Eddy Merckx (pictured above left)
    41.654: Fastest race average in km/h - by Lance Armstrong in 2005 (above right)
    118,000: Total calories burned by Tour finisher (equivalent to 26 Mars Bars per day)

  • Flat: Most of the race takes place on "flat" roads. This doesn't mean they are without undulation (in fact, they often include climbs that would terrify a club cyclist). But they invariably feature most of the competitors riding together in a big "peloton" (or pack) for 200km (or 125 miles) and can end in one of two ways: with a "breakaway" victory by an individual or small group; or, typically with a hair-raising bunch sprint.

    Neither of these scenarios have much of an impact on the overall standings of the race because breakaways are always chased down by the peloton if they contain serious contenders and bunch sprints result in all or most of the field being given the same time for a stage. But victory or a high place does generate small time bonuses, contribute towards other Tour awards and allow riders to pay back their sponsors with much-desired TV time.

  • Individual time trial: Every man against the clock. These are shorter stages of around 50 km (as opposed to 150-250 km). But lots of time is won and lost as Tour challenges flourish or falter. The last-placed rider starts first, followed two minutes later by the next highest, and this carries on until the race leader starts. Many Tours also feature a team time trial, where the clock stops on the fifth of nine riders to cross the finish line. But this is not the case in 2007.

  • Mountain: Most Tours are won in the mountains. And mountains come in all shapes and sizes, with climbs rated four, three, two, one or "hors" category, the latter being the most steep. Climbing from sea level to 2,000m (sometimes more than once in a day), separates the men from the boys and one bad day can cost huge chunks of lost time. So real contenders have to be able to hang with specialist climbers going up and everyone must hang on for dear life on the way down. Hill-top finishes often break apart the field most because they leave no time for anyone to catch up lost time on a descent.

    THE WINNERS' JERSEYS

    The biggest prize in cycling is a yellow jersey in Paris. This signifies overall victory in the Tour de France, an honour won seven times by Lance Armstrong and five by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. There are also smaller awards to be won, each denoted by a different coloured jersey to help spectators spot the category leaders.

    GUIDE TO TOUR LANGUAGE
    A herd of cattle
    Peloton: "Herd" or pack
    Domestiques: "Servants" or team helpers
    Grimpeur: Climber
    Maillot Jaune: Yellow jersey
    Voiture balai: Broom wagon - rounds up stragglers and boots them out of the race

  • Yellow: This is the jersey everyone wants. If you are in it, you are the overall race leader on aggregate time since the start of the Tour. It often changes backs a few times, particularly during the early flat stages of a Tour. But it normally finds its final resting place after a time trial or a gruelling hill-top finish in the Alps or Pyrenees. Tour champions are often good at climbing, sprinting and time trialling.

  • Green: The sprinter's prize goes to the most consistent stage finisher and is normally worn by one of the big powerhouses of the field. With a sliding scale of points available to the first finishers on any day, contenders for this jersey bunch at the front of the peloton for dangerous sprints on flat stages. They just try to survive the mountains.

  • Polka dot (red and white): Conversely, King of the Mountains contenders live for the climbs. They tend to be slimmer in build and bounce up slopes to pick up the points on offer to the first riders over every hill.

  • White: This goes to the best placed under-26 rider in the general classification.

  • Rainbow: This is not up for grabs in the Tour, but can be seen on the back of the World Road Race champion (if he's not wearing yellow, of course). Country champions also have the right to wear national instead of team colours.

    In addition, there are three related awards available, one of them of dubious distinction:

  • Combativity: The cyclist who is deemed to have put in the bravest show on a stage wins the right to wear a white-on-red race number (as opposed to black-on-white).

  • Lanterne Rouge: This is the mocking moniker for the last-placed man in the overall classification, named after the red light shown on trains to mark the rearmost carriage. This man is often found towards the tail of the field, which is a risky spot. On any day, if a rider falls too far off the pace, he can be swept up by the "Broom wagon" and out of the Tour.

  • Team: There are 21 teams of nine cyclists. After every stage, the times of the first three riders across the line from each team are added up and counted. The team with the lowest aggregate time in Paris wins the award.

    BUT DO TEAMS REALLY MATTER?

    You bet they do.

    The Tour de France is an individual event in the sense that every man pushes his own pedals to get around the course. But champions like Armstrong are quick to pay tribute to their support riders.

    Team members who are not in the frame for major awards - or "domestiques" - do the donkey work that enables their leader to thrive, or sometimes simply to survive.

    This may mean fetching and carrying water and supplies from the team car. It may mean providing a small slipstream (not permitted in an individual time trial) by spending a lot of time at the front of the peloton. Or it could even mean turning around and cycling back down a mountain to fetch a stricken colleague and pace him back into contention.

    A contender stripped of all of his team-mates in a breakaway or a mountain climb is very vulnerable.

    IS THE TOUR HARD?

    Just a bit. Many experts rate it the toughest of all major sporting events and participants burn up to 10,000 calories per day in their pursuit of glory.

    Riding a Tour de France is out of reach for all but the elite, winning it is strictly for super humans (Indurain's heart was believed to be 50% bigger than average). And even riding a stage is far too much for some.

    But for the determined club cyclist, training for and riding a Tour de France stage is the thing of sporting dreams.

    Failing that though, simply watch "le grand" spectacle from your own living room. Or from the streets of London, Kent or France. And prepare to be amazed.

    see also
    BBC London local details
    05 Jun 07 |  Cycling
    BBC Kent local details
    06 Jun 07 |  Cycling
    Opening weekend timetable
    05 Jul 07 |  Cycling


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