The Tour de France is underway! Whether you’re interested in cycling or not, this is an event full of history and drama. Kid Reporter Will Foster tells you everything you need to know to follow the sport’s most famous race, which began on Saturday and will finish July 26 in Paris.
The Tour de France is the world’s preeminent annual cycling race, held primarily in France. It is more than a century old. This year’s edition, which began in the Netherlands, comprises 21 one-day segments, called stages, which will cover more than 2,000 miles.
The 2015 Tour features 22 teams with nine riders each. In total, there are 198 cyclists representing 32 countries. France has 41 riders competing, the most of any nation. The U.S. has three. While there is one team that includes only French riders, each of the rest of the teams have athletes that hail from all different countries. Members of the same team assist one another throughout the Tour.
The Races Within the Race
The Tour is composed of multiple competitions: four individual competitions (the general, points, mountain, and young riders classifications) and one team competition (the team classification). After each stage, the leaders of the individual competitions get to don specially colored jerseys on a podium and wear them during the next stage. It must be emphasized that not all competitions are created equal: The main prize is the general classification and its yellow jersey.
This year’s yellow jersey contenders include defending champion Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, Alberto Contador of Spain, Chris Froome of Great Britain, and Nairo Quintana of Columbia. Meanwhile, American Tejay van Garderen, who was fifth in the Tour general classification standings last year, has a chance to spark U.S. interest in cycling with another strong performance.
The Crazy, er, Enthusiastic Fans
The bizarre antics of spectators at the Tour have become famous. In 2014 someone burned British cyclist Bradley Wiggins with a flare. Fans in full body banana costumes or those dressed like chickens have run alongside riders in past years.
While the route changes every year, one thing always remains the same: Riders must traverse not one, but two mountain ranges, the Pyrenees and the Alps. After the 2015 Tour’s early stages in the pancake flat areas of the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France, cyclists will have to tackle the challenge posed by southern France’s mountainous terrain. The highest elevation riders will reach is 7,382 feet, in the Alps during stage 17.
The Benefits — and Dangers — of Riding With the Pack
During the Tour de France, most cyclists ride in a clump called the peloton. This reduces drag, saving bikers lots of energy. However, there can be drawbacks to this in the form of broken collarbones, fractured cheekbones, and bloody noses. Each year, the Tour invariably produces plenty of crashes, some more serious than others. Occasionally riders are even forced to withdraw from the Tour. In 2014, Froome, of Team Sky, had to quit after a collision during the fourth stage left him with several broken bones.
The Need for Speed
The average speed is about 25 miles per hour. On dangerous downhill stretches in which the threat of serious injury is always present, riders can reach speeds as high as 70 m.p.h.
Nutrition on the Road
Roughly five hours of cycling nearly every day for more than three weeks takes a heavy toll on riders’ bodies. Each race day, on average, Tour bikers ride about 110 miles and burn 6,071 calories, according to the American Institute of Physics. With this extreme level of calorie loss (most people burn around 2,000 daily), cyclists’ bodies begin to run out of energy. To counter this, the nutritionist for the BMC Racing Team told Men’s Journal that on a typical race day, team members must eat seven fruit- and carbohydrate-heavy meals (including snacks) to consume 8,000 calories. (Most people take in fewer than 2,500 a day.) In just one stage, BMC riders will consume two paninis, a couple of energy bars, and eight to 12 bottles of sports drinks.
When You Gotta Go…
Bikers’ high consumption of fluids during stages inevitably results in the need for them to relieve themselves. Sometimes, near the start of the race, the entire peloton will stop for a bathroom break. But more often cyclists take impromptu breaks, either at the side of the road or in their pants. There are some rules about urination at the Tour. Belgian rider Johan Vansummeren was fined three times in 2010 for urinating in front of fans, and Mark Cavendish of Great Britain was once reprimanded for urinating into a river.
Relaxation is crucial for Tour riders. When bikers reach their hotels after a stage, they typically get a massage to ease muscles and then watch TV while lying down. On the Tour’s two rest days, though, some cyclists take a different approach. Team Sky members ride the next stage’s course to keep their muscles in good shape and stay focused.
The Supporting Cast
Aside from the riders, a huge support staff will be present during the 2015 Tour. There are 300 total personnel helping the teams, including bike mechanics, who change tires on the fly much like a NASCAR pit crew.
With the challenges riders’ bodies face throughout the Tour de France, it would only figure that some would go outside the rules for an advantage by taking steroids. That’s exactly what has happened in recent years, with now-retired American Lance Armstrong the most famous example. Many suspect that some current top cyclists are doping as well.
Photos: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images (pack, accident, water bottle), Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images (fans)