On Saturday, 5 July, the 2014 Tour de France will begin in Yorkshire and a battle for the yellow jersey will start. While competition for the fabled maillot jaune towers over the three-week race, other contests add to the rich tapestry of the race's 101st edition.
Yellow jersey (maillot jaune)
Awarded to the rider with the lowest aggregated time after each stage. For 2014, the route contains numerous opportunities for contenders to attack. There are six designated mountain stages, of which five are summit finishes. This year there's just one time trial – a 54km race on stage 20 that could be decisive in annointing the winner.
Along the way, yellow jersey favourites will have to avoid crashes and beware of traps set by rival teams in crosswinds or over tricky terrain. Unlike the Giro d’Italia, there are no time bonuses awarded for winning stages.The final overall winner of the yellow jersey will take home €450,000, which will typically be split among his teammates.
Favourites: Chris Froome (Team Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Tejay van Garderen (BMC)
Tour de France maillot jaune
Green jersey (maillot vert)
The green jersey points competition was established more than 60 years ago for the most consistent finisher. Competition rules mean it’s weighted towards sprinters – more points are on offer on flat stages than medium mountain, high mountain and individual TT stages.
On a sprint stage, the winner collects 45 points; on a medium mountain stage, 30 points; in the high mountains and individual time trial stages, just 20 points. Points are awarded on a sliding scale down to 15th place. Additionally, green jersey points are awarded at intermediate sprints, down to 15 riders – 20 points for first place down to one for the 15th rider.
The competition structure means strategy is just as key as pure speed – contenders can gamble all and target the finales of the nine flat sprint stages, or try to escape the peloton and hoover up points on intermediate sprints. It’s an intriguing battle that begins on the very first day and can last right up to the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées. The winner will collect €25,000.
Favourites: Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Marcel Kittel
The maillot vert is for the most consistent finisher
Polka dot jersey
Red polka dots denote the best climber, defined by the rider who accumulates the most points cresting hills and mountains at the front of the race. Summits are classified according to difficulty – fourth category climbs are mild, HC climbs are leg breakers. As with the green jersey, points are awarded on sliding scales for lesser-placed finishers.
In a further twist, polka dot points are doubled on the five summit finish days (La Planche des Belle Filles, Chamrousse, Risoul, Pla d'Adet and Hautacam). The battle for the jersey will likely burst into life on stage nine when the peloton tackle six categorised climbs during the 170km stage.
The probable route to the €25,000 prize lies in targeting category one (10 points for the winner) and HC climbs (25 points) and being very close to the front on days when points are doubled. The structure means someone well-placed on the general classification stands a good chance of collecting this jersey.
Favourites: Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Vincenzo Nibali, Thibaut Pinot
Specialist climbers will be after the polka dot jersey
Awarded to the best young rider in the general classification. To be eligible for the €20,000 prize, riders must be aged 25 or under.
Favourites: Tejay van Garderen BMC; Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp)
The simple white jersey
The battle for best team is an underrated one that usually simmers for three weeks. The competition is based on adding the times of each team’s first three finishers at every stage finale. The winning squad will have with the lowest accumulated time, and take home €50,000.
Favourites: BMC Racing, Tinkoff-Saxo Bank, AG2R-La Mondiale
Most aggressive rider
Watch out for a rider wearing a red race number (dossard rouge) – it denotes that they were the most aggressive rider the previous day, based largely on the amount of time they spent the breakaway. However, it also has a subjective element; an eight-person jury of cycling experts conclude on winners.
At the end of the 21 stages, the jury awards €20,000 to the ‘super-combative’ rider.
Favourites: Christophe Riblon (AG2R-La Mondiale), Arthur Vichot (FDJ.fr)
Other frequently asked questions about the Tour de France
What's the average speed of the Tour de France?
The average speed of modern editions of the Tour de France is typically in the region of 40km/h (25mph). The fastest ever Tour de France average speed was 41.654 km/h (25.88mph) over the 3608km of the 2005 edition. Note, the winner that year, Lance Armstrong, was subsequently disqualified from all his Tour victories for doping.
The 2010-2012 editions of the Tour averaged between 39.5 and 40km/h. Last year the speed crept up to 40.5km/h.
The fastest average speed in a mass start road stage of the Tour de France is 50.355 km/h over 194.5km by Mario Cipollini in the Laval-Blois stage in 1999. The fastest ever prologue time trial (under 8km) is 55.152km/h over 7.2km, set by Chris Boardman in the prologue of the 1994 Tour de France in Liege. The fastest mid-length (8-30km) time trial was 54.676km/h over 19km set by David Zabriskie in the first stage of the 2005 Tour. The fastest long time trial is 54.359km/h over 49km, ridden by David Millar in stage 19 of the 2003 Tour.
Average speeds in the Tour are influenced by wind direction and strength, hilliness, aerodynamics, weight, tactics and, of course, rider power output.
How long is the Tour de France?
The Tour's length has changed greatly since it first started in 1903 with a 2,428km race. The following year was the shortest ever Tour at 2,420km, before the trend towards longer races took hold. This peaked in 1926 with a 5,745km race, which was the longest ever Tour de France. Since 1999, the Tour's length has varied between 3,282km and 3,657km run over 21 stages. The 2014 Tour de France is 3,664km long.
Why do so many riders have the same finish time? They can't all cross the line together surely?
Not everyone can cross the line at once. To avoid everyone contesting the finish, each rider in a given bunch is awarded the same time
It's impossible for 180 riders to all cross the line simultaneously, of course, so the Tour (and most other stage races) operates the legal fiction that all the riders in the race's main pack cross the line at the same time as the first rider of that group. But if a split forms and the gap is larger than one second, the next group gets the time of the first rider of that group. Overall, it's designed to save a mad rush for the line and in most cases it's too difficult to allocate separate times.
How is the teams classification calculated?
The teams classification is calculated based on the total time of the first three riders across the line from each team each day, rather than the first three riders on general classification from each team. The winner of this classification is the team with the lowest cumulative overall time at the end of 20 stages. If a team is reduced to less than three riders, they are eliminated from the teams competition.
How do you get a negative number of points in the points classification?
A number of readers have commented on a curiosity in the points classification in the fight for the green jersey, where some riders actually have negative points. This arises because the organisers impose penalties for various infractions in a number of ways. The most common is a monetary fine, paid in Swiss francs. A harsher penalty is to add time from the rider's GC time, or deduct points from their points tally. If the rider has been particularly naughty, they will be disqualified from the race.
Riders can be penalised in a lot of ways, for example, hanging onto a team car, or taking too many 'bottles' from the director sportif; answering the call of nature in front of the public (when you gotta go, you gotta go); causing another rider to crash, or otherwise riding dangerously in the bunch; hitching a ride to the finish in the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme's car; giving spectators the evil eye, and so on.
What method is used to decide who wears the green jersey when two riders are tied on points?
When two riders have an equal number of points, the criteria used to decide who should wear the green jersey is the rider with the most number of second places where points have been allocated, then the most number of third places, and so on.
What do the climb categories mean?
Mountain categories are decided by the severity of the climb and its position in the stage, among other things
Climbs are graded according to their severity, from fourth (easy) to first (hard) category, plus the very hardest climbs which are considered 'hors categorie' or 'beyond category'. The gradings take into account the length and steepness of the climb and the position of the climb in the stage, with the quality of the road surface making up a final, less important factor.
How are the gradients calculated?
A grade of, say, 10 percent, simply means that the road ascends 10m for every 100m it travels horizontally. For those with a mathematical bent, it's a simple tangent ratio. Climb grades are averages for the whole climb, so a straightforward-sounding six percent grade can hide some much steeper pitches that make it a monster.
So how fast are these guys, really?
Average speeds, even across the same race route, can vary markedly depending on the tactics employed by various teams. Generally speaking, on a flat-ish stage of around 200km in length, the average speed of the peloton would be in excess of 50 km/h on the flatter sections and around 60 km/h in the final kilometres of the stage.
Speeds in the Tour can be very high, over 60km/h on the flat sometimes
Obviously for a break to stay away, they need to be moving faster than the peloton; and by using time checks from the race organisers as well as information from team directors, the riders in the break know what speed they need to be travelling at to stay away and the riders in the bunch know what speed they need to be moving at to catch the break – which is why it almost seems to happen like clockwork when the peloton bridge the gap to the breakaway group, often with less than 10km to go.
Climbing speeds are particularly difficult to place an arbitrary figure on due to the huge variation in gradients, relative altitude, temperature, wind velocity and direction, and road surfaces. Again, generally speaking, on a climb like Mont Ventoux with an average gradient of around 7.5 percent, the riders in the "laughing group" would be travelling at around 10km/h on the steeper sections of the climb due to its severity.
Again, the speeds encountered in bunch sprints vary depending on the type of finish; however the winners in previous stages of the Tour de France have reached speeds in excess of 70km/h. Now that's movin'.
How do the organisers decide the start order for the prologue and following time trials throughout the race?
The start order for the prologue of any Grand Tour is determined by race management, with last year's winner always riding last. The start order for the following time trials is based on a rider's time on general classification from the stage prior to the time trial, with the riders lowest on the overall classification leaving first.
If a rider was first last year and wears number 1, why doesn't last year's second place wear number 2?
The only rider number that indicates the placing of a rider from the previous year's race is the overall winner. There is no particular order for the riders from other teams, though it is customary for the team's protected GC rider to also wear the dossard that ends in a one – 11, 31 181, etc.