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CYCLING

LE TOUR DE FRANCE

A chequered history but a glorious past, Pitch tightens the brakes on cycling’s most revered race.

As if I’m an alien, tell me exactly what is the Tour de France?

Describing it as an annual multi-day bicycle race completed in stages, is probably about the north and south of things. Or west to east, as it turns out.

As a bit of added background. It was first held in 1903 and the inaugural winner was an Italian-born fella by the name of Maurice Garin, who from 1901 forward competed for France. Incidentally, Garin was stripped of the same title the following year after being caught cheating. It would appear that the misuse of cars and trains as a means of ‘getting about’ was frowned upon, even at the turn of the century. In total, 29 rider (or passengers, probably as accurately) were disqualified. Seeing the event nearly get itself cancelled at only the second time of asking. The giant cash prize was said to be the motivation for the skulduggery, Garin having bought himself a petrol station (where he worked for the remainder of his life) with his winnings the previous year.

And that first race was a five-stage affair held between May 31 and July 5. It started in Paris and took in Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux and Nantes, before swinging back to the Capital.

 

Where is it happening?

Well, France, broadly. Edge to edge. Left to right. But nowhere near as the crow flies. Taking in the Pyrenees and the Alps as it makes its way through 3404 kms (2115 miles) of hills, hollows, bumps and borrows. 

 

Forever French. Anthony Delaplace breaks away from the peoloton to the delight of the home crowd. Le Tour is discussed in all its glory inside Pitch Issue No.4 alongside the life – and passing of cyclist Tom Simpson. 

 

When does it start and what’s the course like?

In 2024 it will start in neutral Florence, Italy at 12:00 p.m. local time, with riders crossing the finish line roughly five and a half hours later.

Last year it all kicked off in Bilbao on July 1 and end with the usual uncontested pootle up the Champs-Élysées on Sunday, July 23. 

Of the 21 stages, eight are described as ‘flat’, four ‘hilly’ and eight ‘mountains’.  The most mountainous of those stages include four ‘summit finishes’. These being at Cauterets-Cambasque, Puy de Dôme, Grand Colombier and Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc. Throw in a single individual time trial, plus the restorative powers of two rest days, and that’s pretty much all that’s going to be asked of the field of 200 racers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything else that might be nice to know?

 

As ‘bits and pieces’ of information go, there will be 12 new stage towns in 2023. Them including the aforementioned Bilbao, plus the likes of Amorebieta-Etxano, Nogaro and the evocatively named Vulcania (look out for that place at the start of stage 10).

And if lung-bustin’ is your thing, the course takes in all five of France’s major mountain ranges, or massifs, as they are called. Them being, in stage order, the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, the Jura, the Alps and the Vosges. Complete with three new climbs at the Côte de Vivero (Basque Region), the Col de la Croix Rosier (Massif Central) and the Col du Feu (Alps). As a nice additional detail, the Col de la Loze at a height of 2304m provides the traditional ‘roof’ of the Tour de France 2023.

 

How do you win?

The scoring system works as follows. Racers accumulate and aggregate their time as they go, but with ‘time bonuses’ awarded at the end of each stage, amounting to 10-, six- and four-second deductions for the first three riders home.  

But it doesn’t stop there. ‘Bonus’ bonus points are made available at strategic spots along the way. Amounting to eight, five and two points to be gained. And not in this instance seconds. However, points – disappointingly for fans of the late-great Sir Bruce Forsyth – don’t necessarily make prizes. But they do go towards the winning of alternative classifications, as the system sets out to reward general consistency over the course of the journey. Or something like that. 

The points competition has been in place since 1953. With a whole set of jerseys up for wearing and winning. Of which, the green is regarded as the next best to the yellow version, which as we all know is well-famous. 

 

Tell me more about the jerseys?

They are a big deal, obviously. With green and yellow versions, as stated, holding the most kudos. 

The green version is for the top sprinter, against points accrued. And the yellow version for the overall winner, based on time alone. Making the yellow jersey arguably the most coveted item of clothing in all sport. 

Historically, both versions’ inception tell their own stories of absolute pragmatism. Yellow being the colour of paper used by the original sponsor L’Auto-Vélo newspaper. And green being the colour of a lawnmower manufacturer, the then sponsor at its onset. The green did change colour once, in 1968, again to accommodate sponsorship. But never before or since. 

The original yellow jersey was made of wool, which must have been a bit heavy going at times. But nice and cosy at others.

Cycling along the Champs Élysées wearing the maillot vert or maillot jaune at the Tour de France’s conclusion is seen as something of a racer’s dream.

 
Germany’s Erik Zabel is regarded as the green king, as it were, boasting six consecutive wins between 1999 to 2004. And in terms of the yellow version, four riders have won it on five occasions. Them being France duo Jacques Anquetil (1957, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1964) and Bernard Hinault (1978, 1979, 1981, 1982 and 1985), Spain’s Miguel Induráin (1991-1995), and Belgium’s Eddy Merckx (1969-1972 and 1974).

Greats of the sport, Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault both won the general classification and the points classification in the same year, with Merckx the best ever all-round performer when in 1969 he claimed ‘points’, ‘mountain’, and ‘general’ classifications. 

Incidentally, the mountains classification – or ‘King of the Mountains’ - started in 1933. It’s awarded to the rider that gains the most points when racing uphill and summiting peaks. Since 1975 they’ve worn a particularly distinctive red-and-white polka dot jersey, known as the maillot à pois rouges.

On the jersey undercard is an all-white version that goes to the fastest rider under the age of 26. And there are two other classifications that go jersey-less. Them being the Combativity Award, as recognition for aggressive riding. With the event leader in this category awarded a red race number. And the Team Classification for the overall best collective. These stage-by-stage frontrunners get to wear shirt numbers with yellow backgrounds. With only the finishing positions of the three highest-placed riders from each squad contributing to the standings.

 

Tell me about the race’s history of booze and drugs?

Lance Armstrong aside, it’s not like the sport had a flawless reputation before or since the Texan was stripped of his seven Tour titles in 2012. Two other winners (Floyd Landis in 2006 and Alberto Contador in 2010) have gone the same way. And in the race’s early days, competing without stimulants was believed an impossibility. With champagne, beer and brandy seen as being at the lower end of the turbo-boost scale.

 

 

 
For the ‘big boys’ it was more a case of ‘what are you offering’, rather than a good deal of science, with the first 60 years of the race conducted without any anti-doping policy whatsoever. 

Strychnine – a poison to most living things – was popular. Mainly for its ability when used in small doses to get the muscles ‘firing like a sewing machine’.  Coupled with booze, cocaine, chloroform and amphetamines -  those early guys were part cyclist, part chemist and part Saturday night nightclub doorman. With riders, at the time, describing this seemingly lethal cocktail as their ‘dynamite’.

As an alternative, ‘La bomba’ proved the talk of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Its mix of amphetamine, cola and caffeine offering a competitive edge. 

From the ‘60s onwards – and the death of England’s Tom Simpson at the 1967 Tour – drug testing saw a change in tactics, if not competitors’ attitudes. And with regard’s Simpson’s passing - one of three riders to have died when on Le Tour - there is a memorial to the Durham-born BBC Sports Personality of the Year 1965 winner on the spot where he collapsed and died atop Ventoux. It serves as a destination of pilgrimage for cycling fans to this day. 

 But death aside, the sport is now going altogether more scientific. And from that time forward the athletes were looking simply to stay one step ahead of the authorities rather than get off their nut. Including, at the time, riders carrying with them condoms filled with ‘clean’ urine for decanting when asked to produce samples. 

It was steroids in the ‘80s. And blood-doping ever since. Throw in growth hormones, testosterone and cortisone and you’ve a modern sport that’s likely never been cleaner, but with an – at best – chequered past. 

 

Is there an element of the race still in the UK?

Sadly, no. But rumours persist of a return to Britain in 2026. The government are certainly talking it up. Especially so on the back of the claimed £130m generated by the presence of the Grand Départ in Yorkshire in 2014.

 

What does the winner get?

There’s a prize pool of around €2.3 million, of which € 500,000 will go to the winner of what is called the final individual general classification.

 

What’s the secret to winning Le Tour?

Get in front; stay in front. And this is because holding the yellow jersey comes with it a whole set of unwritten rules and benefits. It’s believed that it’s these rules, and not the written version, that play the biggest part in determining the destiny of the title. 

They include, in the case of a fall, puncture or accident involving the race leader – or contenders even – the pack (peloton) wait, or certainly don’t attack. 

However, grey area exists around what is described as ‘mechanicals’. Sometimes riders wait, sometimes not.  Chris Froome was said to have benefitted when ‘shipping his chain’ in 2017. Rival, Fabio Aru from Italy, saw his chance and upon the misfire started pulling away. Only to be told in no uncertain terms by the riders around him to call off his charge. With time enough for Froome to regain control and proper function of his machine, then go on to win the title.

Crashing also generally proves the showstopper you might expect it to. At best, recovering ground takes a disproportionate amount of effort compared to when clustered in the lead peloton. And at worst, a bad crash rules a rider out-out, as it were. 

However, if riders feel collectively that conditions are too dangerous to race competitively, they’ll neutralise the intensity of the stage and slow right down to a safer speed. This happened at the beginning of stage 4 in 2021 following some bad crashes over preceding days.  

The race will only be won by an outstanding all-round rider, who is also a good time-triallist. The course is too unforgiving for too long, over too long a distance, for a specialist to do enough to sneak it. Elsewhere, it goes without saying that fitness levels need to be at world-class levels. And you can only gain entry as part of a team.

 

Who are the main contenders?

Given eight hypothetical £5 bets, Pitch reckons that these be-lycra’d freewheelers will give you a decent ride for your fiver…

Name: Jonas Vingegaard
Nationality: Denmark
Team: Jumbo-Visma
Age: 27
Tour experience: 2021 (2nd), 2022 (1st)
The event’s reigning champion, cynically, some believe his success owes as much to other’s misfortune as anything else. 
An undeniably talented ‘mountain climber’, Vingegaard’s abilities on the steepest of slopes and work-rate at altitude makes 2023’s course likely to be right up his near-vertical alley. He’s also quick over the time-trial distance.

 

 

 

 

Name: Tadej Pogačar
Nationality: Slovenia
Team: UAE Team Emirates
Age: 25
Tour experience: 2020 (1st), 2021 (1st), 2022 (2nd)
The Slovenian’s track record in recent Tour de France’s marks him out as an obvious podium favourite. As a minimum. 
And his 2022 form, despite his team’s poor luck with Covid-19 around Tour-time, was nigh-on flawless. He’s described as ‘powerful’ in all conditions, over all distances, and all terrains. A penchant for thinking on his feet makes the additional high-mountain stages’ levels of unpredictability something Pogačar is said to thrive on.
 
Name: Egan Bernal
Nationality: Colombia
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
Age: 27
Life-threatening injuries to leg, knee and spine - all sustained during a massive crash on January 24, 2022 when the former Tour winner collided with a bus -  makes the Colombian’s return a triumph in its own right. A remarkable recovery, plus 2023’s mountainous route, makes the South American once again a contender.

Name: Primož Roglič
Nationality: Slovenia
Team: Jumbo-Visma
Age: 33
Never a winner, former ski jumper Primož Roglič undeniably has what amounts to unfinished business with the Tour de France. Crashes the last two-times of asking, his consistent success in Spain makes the twisty-turny-and-technical roads of the Tour’s opening stages in the Basque Region a strong suit that he’ll get to try on for size early. And any amount of good fortune would be well-deserved.

Name: Remco Evenepoel
Nationality: Belgium
Team: Soudal Quick-Step
Age: 24
The sport’s fastest rising star, he’ll be tasting the Tour straight out of the wrapper in the 2023. 
A tremendous road racer, the lack of time-trialling opportunities might mean it’s not quite the Belgian’s time. Or not quite his course. But he’ll love the hills, if not the mountains, as the more undulating climbs present breakaway opportunities he’ll relish. 

Name: Jai Hindley
Nationality: Australia
Team: Bora-Hansgrohe
Age: 27
The call of the mountains. A likely strong ‘third-weeker’, a time when the Tour notoriously gets toughest, and the relative lack of time-trials, makes Perth-born Hindley a likely ‘bolter’, as they say Down under. 
A winner of the Giro d’Italia in 2022, the stars (Southern Cross) look to be aligning. But is it too soon?

Name: Simon Yates
Nationality: England
Team: Jayco-AlUla
Age: 31

A disastrous Grand Tour season in 2022, Bury’s Simon Yates will be looking to do just that to last term’s form, by burying it. 
A climber, and a stayer, there’s opportunities for Yates to attack when it gets tough.

Name: Geraint Thomas
Nationality: Wales
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
Age: 37
Welsh-speaking Thomas will be taking on the ‘Grande Boucle’ (Big Loop) for the thirteenth time in 2023. It’s an event that has seen the very best of the Cardiff-born pedal-pusher. 
With the emergence of young stars in the form of Evenepoel and even Hindley, this Commonwealth bronze medallist somewhat unusually finds himself in the pack of fancied riders rather than out front. 


 
How can I follow the action?
It has a huge presence online, but if you’re looking to follow every twist and turn, ITV has the TV broadcast rights.

 

More bits to know...

The 1926 Tour was the longest ever, at a saddle-sore-inducing 5745km.


As mentioned, three Tour riders have died. Them being Francisco Cepeda of Spain and Italy’s Fabio Casartelli. Plus our very-own, Tom Simpson.


France’s Henri Cornet is the youngest-ever winner when claiming the title in 1904, aged 20.


France has 36 Tour winners. Belgium, second with 18 rider wins.


Belgian Eddy Merckx has won the most stages with 36.


Pre-ban, America’s ‘Live Strong’ Lance Armstrong was the most-winning individual with seven overall Tour titles. And in that, he was absolutely right when he infamously named his best-selling memoir, It’s Not About The Bike…

 

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