Tour de France Terms

The Tour de France, or Le Tour, is without a doubt the most famous, and the most grueling, bicycle race in the world. Held each July since 1902 (with breaks during the world wars), this is the 92nd riding of the Tour. This year’s tour is 2,237 miles (3,600 km), broken up into 21 stages or daily rides. The tour’s route changes from year-to-year, running through different regions of France and with some stages in neighboring countries (this year it’s Germany). Of course, this year’s Tour is eagerly watched by many because it is Lance Armstrong’s last year riding the race. Armstrong has won the last six Tours, the only man to have won that many.

Traditionally, the race starts with short time trial of less than five miles called the prologue. A time trial is a stage where the cyclists ride individually, against the clock alone, without the assistance of teammates. Some time trials are team time trials, where each team rides as a group, but not alongside the other teams. This year, the prologue has been replaced with a longer, 12 mi (19 km) time trial. The final stage of the race is always along the Champs Elysees (literally the Elysian Fields), the famed Parisian avenue. Riders do three circuits of the street, each one about 15 kilometers long at very fast speeds. Winning this final stage is considered quite an honor.

Perhaps the most distinctive cycling term is peloton, the mass of riders in a race. The peloton is also informally called a bunch. Attack is both a noun and a verb meaning an aggressive move to break away from the peloton and take the lead in the stage. The attacker and the riders who jump and escape the peloton with attacker form a break or breakaway. When a rider takes a flyer, his teammates will block the chasers, or other riders attempting to catch up, so they can’t bridge or bridge the gap and catch the attacker. One kind of attack used at the end of the stage or in the sprint competition is for a teammate to leadout another rider, riding as fast as possible and allowing the second rider to draft behind him and then slingshot out in front and finish first. An attack by a group of riders just before a stage’s finish line is called a field sprint, or sometimes bunch sprint or pack finish. Cyclists who cross the finish line in a group are all awarded the same time for the stage.

Cyclists on the tour burn an astounding number of calories, 5,900 on average. To keep their energy up, they eat over 5,000 calories when in the saddle. Food is passed to riders by soigneurs (literally welfare man) in musettes, or cotton bags. Food can only be passed to riders in designated feed zones. Stages of the tour can be four or five hours long and, being human, the riders at times have to heed the call of nature. When one stops off the side of the road, he is said to be taking l’au naturel.

A large number of automobiles, called the caravan, follow the cyclists. Each team has a team vehicle that carries spare tires, spare bikes, food, water, and mechanics to assist with flat tires and mechanical problems. There are cars for race officials and for journalists. The SAG wagon or broom wagon (voiture balai) is the car that follows the caravan and picks up (sweeps up) riders who have dropped or fallen off the back. And in front of the riders is a publicity caravan of cars who drum up spectators for the race.

To bunny-hop is to jump over curbs and small obstacles, such as rocks, by lifting both wheels off the ground at the same time. In a road race like the Tour, catching air, even with a little bunny-hop is risky and usually a bad strategy, often resulting in a crash.

There are any number of words for crashing. They include auger in, biff, dump, and endo (a crash where the rider goes over the handlebars, end-over-end). Riders who crash usually end up with road rash, from scraping their skin along the pavement.

Crashing isn’t the only hazard. The Tour is a three-week race and endurance is key. When a cyclist reaches the limits of his endurance and is on the verge of collapse, he is said to blow up or bonk.

To draft or slipstream is to ride behind another cyclist, reducing the wind resistance and conserving energy. Drafting behind vehicles is prohibited. When there is a cross-wind, riders will often ride in echelon, or behind and to the side of the rider in front of them, drafting without being directly behind. Sometimes a team will form a paceline, riding in a line with the leader periodically pulling off to the end of the line, and the next rider pulling into the lead.

A rider’s cadence is the rate of pedaling, usually measured in revolutions per minute of one foot. A rider who is blocking others, will soft pedal, pedaling in a lower gear so he maintains cadence but is not applying power.

Many don’t realize it buy cycling is a team sport, with each team of nine riders focused on assisting one its riders to win the race. The team’s coach is called the Director Sportif. The team’s lead rider has a lieutenant, who rides close to him, chases down breakaways to keep riders from outpacing the leader, and allowing the leader to draft behind him. Lance Armstrong’s lieutenant is this year’s race is George Hincapie.

The standings in the Tour are called the General Classification or GC. Riders are ranked in the General Classification by the total amount of time it took them to ride all the stages. One can be first in the GC and win the tour without winning any of the stages. In addition to competing for the fastest times in the individual stages and the overall tour, there are also sprinting and climbing competitions.

Points, or primes (pronounced / preem /) are awarded to the riders who jam the fastest in designated sprinting zones and those who hammer on climbs. Hills are ranked into five categories, designated 4 through 1 and HC (hors categorie, beyond category). The harder the climb, the more points it is worth, with HC hills earning the most.

The rider who is number one in the GC is awarded the prestigious yellow jersey (maillot jaune). The yellow color was chosen because it was the color of l’Auto, the original corporate sponsor of the tour. The opposite of the yellow jersey is the lanterne rouge (red lantern), signifying the rider who is last in the GC. The term comes from the early days of the Tour when a car with a red lantern would follow the last rider. Other jerseys are the green jersey, awarded to the leader of the sprint competition, the polka-dot jersey, worn by the King of the Mountains or the leader in the climbing competition, and the white jersey, worn by the rider under 25 years of age who is highest in the GC.

So if you catch any of the coverage of this year’s race, you’ll now be a bit more familiar with the lingo of the sport of cycling and its greatest race.

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