Every summer, a peloton of world-class cyclists race across the vibrant landscape of France in the Tour de France. The course consists of three grueling weeks of riding over steep mountain passes and the flat countryside of France’s picturesque but often arduous terrain. There’s much more to understanding the Tour de France than appreciating the feat of cycling over 2,115 miles. The race involves a unique scoring system, distinct stages, and team strategies. The Tour de France requires extreme athleticism and endurance and is as much about teamwork as it is about individual triumph. With insights from Tour de France veteran George Hincapie, we’ll explore the intricacies of the race, including this year’s stages and favored teams and what it takes to wear a prestigious yellow, green, white, or red polka-dot jersey.
What is the Tour de France?
The Tour de France is a prestigious 3,404km race (about 2,115 mi) consisting of 21 day-long stages. Participating cyclists face an extreme test of endurance while racing over multiple flat, hilly, and mountainous regions of France and surrounding countries. One cyclist emerges at the top to win the Tour trophy and the largest cash prize of €500,000, but he doesn’t get there without the support of his team which protects and assists the team leader. Each team comprises eight riders who play a part in their team’s strategy, either aiming to win overall or targeting specific stages or jerseys. Smaller prizes are awarded to the other top seven riders, top teams, classification jersey wearers, and stage winners.
The 2023 Tour de France is scheduled for July 1–23. The race covers six regions of France and part of the Western Pyrenees in Spain.
A brief history of the Tour de France
To boost L’Auto newspaper’s circulation, editor Henri Desgrange inaugurated the Tour de France in 1903. The first race began in Paris and covered just over 1500 miles in 6 stages. Cyclists rode single-speed bikes without helmets, fueled on chocolate and champagne, and persevered through the night. Maurice Garin won the first Tour, outpacing the 69 other competitors by three hours and earning 3,000 francs. Over the next several decades, the stages were shortened from roughly 248 to 100 miles, climbs were introduced, and the race evolved from an individual sport to a team effort.
“Since my career, everything from nutrition to technology at the Tour de France has evolved tremendously. Every simple aspect of the course and the riders’ nutrition and training is meticulously planned. In my day, there was more guesswork to it.” – George Hincapie
Where does the Tour de France start?
The 2023 Tour de France will begin in the Basque Country of Northern Spain, with stage 1 starting and ending in Bilbao. The first three stages continue through the Western Pyrenees before continuing through France. And as has been the norm since 1975, the tour will end in Paris on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
How long is the Tour de France?
The Tour de France takes place over 21 days in July, consisting of one stage each day with two designated rest days throughout the race. Cyclists generally finish each stage within 5 to 6 hours. The total distance covered by the race is approximately 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers), although it varies slightly each year.
How does the Tour de France work?
The Tour de France is one of the world’s most prestigious and challenging sporting events. Only teams of elite cyclists who hold high rankings within the International Cycling Union and a select few pro continental teams are invited to compete. Tour de France athletes compete as teams, not as individuals. Each team comprises cyclists with distinct strengths, such as climbing or sprinting, enabling them to excel in various stages of the race. Team members use their strengths to support and propel the team leader toward victory.
Tour de France stages
The Tour de France is a 23-day event with 21 stages that vary in terrain and difficulty. Each day covers a different stage with a new route and two rest days. The 2023 Tour route has eight flat stages, four hilly stages, eight mountain stages, and one individual time trial.
- Flat stages bring high speeds.
- Hilly stages feature rolling hills with moderate climbs that give powerful cyclists an opportunity for breakaways and attacks.
- Mountainous stages include strenuous accents over iconic mountain passes, like the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, the Jura, the Alps, and the Vosges.
- Cyclists also compete against the clock individually in the time trial, which can be crucial in determining the time gaps between riders and impact the general classification standings.
“Most of the climbs we face were difficult in some way, but the Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Tourmalet in France stand out as most challenging.” – George Hincapie
To determine the Tour de France overall winner, scores from every stage are combined, and the cyclist with the lowest time for all 21 stages wins the Tour de France trophy and the yellow jersey. But each stage also has a winner, motivating teams to employ strategic tactics to secure victories in different stages.
Tour de France peloton
The peloton is the large group of cyclists from various teams who ride side-by-side, drafting off one another to reduce wind resistance and conserve energy. Within a peloton, “domestiques” or support riders ride at the front of the peloton to set the pace, protect their team leaders, and employ tactics to get their team leader ahead.
The size of the peloton can vary depending on the stage and the dynamics of the race. In flat stages, the peloton tends to be larger as more riders can stay together. However, in mountain stages, the peloton may split into smaller groups as riders with different abilities separate based on their climbing or descending skills.
“Riding in the peloton could be hectic and stressful. Every day is dangerous with strenuous mountains, bad weather, crashes, and illnesses we had to contend with. Riders take big risks, which is why the Tour de France is considered the hardest race in the world. But the Tour also has a super cool vibe and some of the most energetic fans that add excitement to the event.” – George Hincapie
The peloton influences the dynamics of the race as teams and individual riders strategize and collaborate within the group to gain advantages, protect their positions, or launch attacks. Cyclists must be careful not to touch wheels, which would result in a crash. Those positioned near the front of the peloton are less likely to get caught in a crash and in a better position to respond to attacks from other riders.
A “breakaway” occurs when a small group of riders successfully distance themselves from the main peloton. These riders aim to create a time gap between themselves and the peloton, to win the stage or gain an advantage in the overall race. A “chase group” from the peloton may choose to control the gap and chase down the breakaway to prevent them from gaining too much time. Breakaways add excitement and unpredictability to the race and often shape the outcome of individual stages.
Tour de France teams
22 teams of 8 riders participate in the Tour de France. Each team has one Team Leader, usually a cyclist who excels in all areas–endurance, climbing, and time trials. The team’s domestiques support the leader and have different strengths that help the team execute strategies and contribute to the leader’s success. Even though only one rider wins the race, he can’t do it without his teammates who also share in the triumph of the win and the prize money.
Domestiques include strong climbers and sprinters, capable of powering ahead of the peloton and protecting the leader. A domestique’s role includes
- Riding in front of the leader to shield him from resistance from headwinds and conserve his energy
- Setting the leader’s pace to suit his strengths and objectives
- Initiating or joining breakaways to disrupt the pace of the peloton, for rivals to chase, and provide an opportunity for the leader to launch an attack
- Helping the leader maintain a good position within the peloton
- “Leading out” sprints so the leader can benefit from their slipstreams to conserve energy for his final sprint to the finish line
- Fetching weather, food, or supplies from the team car during the race
George Hincapie competed as a domestique in the Tour de France 17 times and won stage 15 in the 2005 Tour. He retired from his cycling career in 2012 and started the Hincapie cycling apparel brand with his brother Rich. Today, George remains an invaluable member of our team, bringing his extensive experience and expertise to the brand.
“As a domestique, my responsibility was to protect my team leader, keeping him in a good position and out of harm’s way, and to make strategic decisions for the team on the road.” – George Hincapie
Tour de France classifications
Winning the Tour de France trophy and wearing the coveted yellow jersey is the ultimate prize, but there are multiple other prizes and jersey colors to be won at the race. The Tour de France awards cyclists in different classifications. Many riders participate in the race with the intention of targeting specific stages or aiming for secondary classifications, rather than solely focusing on winning overall.
🟡 Yellow jersey
2022 Winner: Jonas Vinegaard
The yellow jersey is the highest Tour de France honor awarded to the cyclist with the lowest combined time from all 21 stages. The yellow jersey is given at the end of the race, but yellow is also worn by the current leader of each stage during the race. Teams with a top contender for the yellow jersey will strategically break away and attack on climbs to maintain their leader’s position.
🟢 Green jersey
2022 Winner: Wout van Aert
Winning the green jersey isn’t based on overall time but is given to the rider who receives the most points. Points are earned for being one of the first riders to finish each stage. The points classification rewards a cyclist with consistent top performance at the finish line of each stage and designated intermediate sprint points. Those vying for the green jersey are fast sprinters who focus their energy on the flat stages.
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King of the Mountains Classification
🔴 Red and white polka-dot jersey
2022 Winner: Jonas Vinegaard
The “King of the Mountain,” who earns the most points in climbing stages, wears red polka dots. This classification recognizes the best climbers in the race and awards points for reaching the top climbs categorized from 1 (most difficult) to 4 (least difficult). Riders have the potential to earn more points the harder the climb. But the most points are given for HC (hors catégorie) climbs that are even more challenging than category 1.
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Best Young Rider Classification
⚪ White jersey
2022 Winner: Tadej Pogacar
The Best Young Rider Classification is also awarded to a cyclist with the lowest cumulative time, but only cyclists age 25 or younger have a shot at wearing the white jersey.
Best Team Classification
2022 Winner: Ineos Grenadiers
The yellow helmet is worn by the team with the lowest cumulative score of its best three riders at each stage.
Most Combative Rider
2022 Winner: Wout van Aert
The award of “Most Combative Rider” is granted at each stage by a jury that determines which rider was most aggressive. That rider wears a red number on his jersey during the next stage. The prize requires many bold attacks and breakaways.
Tour de France cyclists to watch
Few cyclists excel at climbing, sprinting, and time trialing, but cyclists who win the Tour de France are the best in the game at all of the above. Here are the top three contenders to keep your eye on as you watch this year’s race.
1. Tadej Pogačar
Team: UAE Emirates
Pogačar won his first yellow jersey in 2020 at age 23, making him the youngest Tour de France winner in over a century. He then won the Tour again in 2021 and came in second in 2022.
2. Jonas Vingegaard
Vingegaard won the general classification in 2022 in addition to the King of the Mountains classification. Since this year’s tour features all five of France’s mountain mastiffs, it’s well-suited for Vingegaard.
3. Jai Hindley
Hindley is a 26-year-old making his Tour de France debut in the 2023 race and demonstrated he’s capable of success at the Tour de France when he won the 2022 Giro d’Italia.
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Cycling competition doesn’t get much grander than the Tour de France, but you don’t have to travel to France or be a world-class cyclist to compete in a race or take part in a tour. Join George and our Hincapie team of pro cyclists for a great time riding in an annual Gran Fondo Hincapie.
If you’re new to cycling, we’d love to have you! You can use our training plan for beginners to prepare for the Fondo and use our cycling fueling and hydration guides to learn how to sustain energy on long rides.
If you feel as inspired as we do after watching all 3 weeks of the Tour de France, here are a few of our favorite bike trails to satisfy your itch for a long ride.
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