The Tour de France: An odyssey on wheels

The Globe and Mail

On Saturday, 198 riders will embark on the most celebrated race in professional cycling, the Tour de France – a gruelling three-week test of mind and body. For the Tour’s 100th edition, Oliver Moore and John Allemang offer an overview of an event that can be as baffling to newcomers as it is engrossing for fans.

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History and Culture

There’s something impossible about the Tour de France, which asks cyclists to spend up to seven hours a day in the saddle over three weeks of punishing climbs, harrowing descents, high-speed chases, and the inevitable bone-breaking crashes – while enduring the mid-summer heat of Provence, the sudden showers of Normandy and the chilled peaks of the Pyrénées.

That was whole idea of the race as envisaged by its founding director, a sports-newspaper editor named Henri Desgrange – the original Tour asked riders to carry their own food and spare tires while cycling night and day on cumbersome bicycles along roads that often weren’t much better than goat tracks.

In today’s Tour, teams control the pace and the energy-saving pack of riders known as the peloton marshal their resources for the hard mountain climbs. But the original ideologues behind the Tour demanded displays of toughness. To a country still questioning its defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, cycling till you dropped became an uplifting display of moral virtue.

“Cycling captured the public imagination by showcasing qualities like determination, courage and acceptance of extraordinary pain over long periods of time,” says Christopher S. Thompson, author of Tour de France: A Cultural History .

Desgrange’s correspondents were there to tell the patriotic story. “This united the country behind the ‘giants of the road,’ as they were dubbed,” Thompson says.

The quest was commercialized from the start, but French intellectuals preferred to see the epic side of the three-week journey: Riders became the modern equivalent of Odysseus.

Those incompatible tensions remain in the modern Tour. Sometimes it feels like a giant sales pitch, and sometimes, when the dopers get caught, the heroic qualities are quickly reduced to human scale. But when you’re caught up in the breathless moment, as a breakaway rider tries to hold onto his slim lead with the force of the peloton bearing down on him – past the beautiful backdrop that is France – they might still be giants.

The route

The Tour de France is an inhuman physical test, a huge moneymaker and an incomparable spectacle of landscape. When plotting a route each year, organizers have to balance these competing interests while maintaining a connection with the original idea behind the Tour – an exploration of the French nation.

These days, it’s more of a 21-stage tourism commercial, and communities pay to be showcased. But the cyclists still travel the country, ranging over mountains, rushing past seaside resorts, churning their legs past chateaus and startled cows, and finishing with a victory parade along the Champs-Élysées.

Their exploits are recorded by a vast army of cameras on motorcycles and helicopters who relay every grimace and see-you-later look on a testing mountain stage, expertly capture the go-for-it risks of a 100-kilometres-an-hour descent and still find room for long views of achingly beautiful vistas. Spectators become an intimate part of the proceedings: On the cramped mountain ascents, breathless riders forge a path between camera-hogging corporate mascots, shameless Speedo-clad well-wishers and a German enthusiast who dresses up as a trident-brandishing devil.

This year’s race visits Corsica for the first time – an oversight explained by the Island of Beauty’s once-fearsome separatist movement. “This is the kind of symbolic statement that the race can still make,” author Christopher S. Thompson notes. “It’s saying to Corsicans, ‘You are now safe enough and loyal enough to be included in the 100th running of the Tour.’ ”

The most exciting stage of the Tour should be July 14, a Bastille Day climb of windswept Mont Ventoux – the culmination of a punishing 242.5-km ride. But for cycling eye candy, it may be hard to beat the final nighttime stage, where the Tour will end as the sun sets in Paris.


Cycling is a team sport won by individuals.

Although only one man stands in yellow on the Champs at the end of the Tour each year, none would be there without the suffering of their support riders.

Domestiques pace the top contenders up mountains and shield them from the wind. They fetch water bottles and rain gear. It can seem a thankless task, but the dynamic can change quickly in the complex world of stage racing. A leader might crash out or be off form, prompting a shuffle on the team and maybe a shift in tactics.

Each team starts with specific objectives.

Smaller teams may be trying for individual stage victories or going for the green or polka-dot jerseys, which recognize sprinting and climbing prowess, respectively. They might make their sponsor happy with a long solo breakaway that means hours of television coverage for the logos on their jersey.

Star riders trying to do well overall in the General Classification take a more strategic view. Three-week races can be won by less than a minute overall and the smallest error can prove fatal.

They typically bide their time on the flat stages, where the aerodynamic advantage of the pack makes it hard to build a lead. But the pack invariably splinters when the race hits the mountains, offering a chance for GC contenders to break free and take time from their competitors.

It is in the high mountains that races are won or lost. And this is where mobs of fans gather, hoping for an epic duel as the greats go head to head.

This year’s longest stage is 14, which ends on Mont Ventoux and should expose any pretenders. Watch also for a withering series of attacks on stage 18, which takes racers over Alpe d’Huez, around a loop and up the same peak again for a mountain-top finish.


Greg LeMond squeaked out the smallest winning margin in the 1989 Tour – only eight seconds – after fitting his bike for the final stage with a radical innovation: triathlon-style handlebars that let him ride in a more streamlined position.

The move brought howls of protest from the man he beat and grumping from traditionalists. But it was part of a revolution in the bicycles used by racers.

Bicycles hadn’t changed all that much over the decades. Gears had been developed – a crucial change that helped racers manage the climbs – but the basic steel-blend frame and spoked wheels were fundamentally the same. The different brands looked so similar racers could paint their preferred ride in the livery of their bike sponsor and no one would be the wiser.

But rumblings were shaking up the tradition-minded sport. Clipless pedals – confusingly named, as the shoe effectively clips into the pedal – were popularized in the 1980s, and aerodynamic disc wheels appeared in the same era. And the development of carbon fibre allowed engineers to create frames in shapes no welder could match. Bicycles became more efficient, lighter, more aerodynamic. Weights have dropped so far that riders whose bikes are below the 6.8-kilogram threshold allowed by the rule book have been known to drop lead weights down the tubes.

As advances in bicycle technology let competitors ride faster, the nature of the event itself was being changed by the development of race radios. Information could flow constantly to and from the team car. Officials could monitor the whole situation on the road, including the position of riders who vanished off the front of the pack. And taped to racers’ ears were little receivers that offered them constant feedback and instructions.

But perhaps nothing made a bigger difference to racers than the switch to synthetic kit. Although niche cyclists today swear by ultra-fine wool, race clothing in earlier years was a cruder product. Padding in shorts is still called a chamois – a reference to the days when it was made of leather, which quickly lost its natural oils and was like riding on a ripple-chip. In extremis, old-time Tour racers lined their shorts with raw meat to soothe the ache.


In the early days, it was ether and cocaine, even strychnine.

This was long before Lance Armstrong and long before doping controls, when the Tour was an appalling endurance challenge. The organizer dreamed of a race so hard only one person would finish.

Racers faced horribly long stages that had them tackling bad roads through the night. Chasing a lucrative prize, they’d try anything that might keep them awake and pedalling hard.

Stages were eventually shortened and the race started to look more the way it does now. But the pace kept increasing and the desperation of the riders – whose other options were typically a factory or farm field – remained constant.

Doping was not actually against the rules then. Amphetamine use gradually became common among the pro ranks and five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil derided as “a fool” anyone who imagined they could race on water alone. Italian great Fausto Coppi said he took drugs when “necessary,” admitting that was “almost all the time.”

Only in the 1960s did dope testing came to the Tour, sparking a decades-long cat-and-mouse game.

All the while, the race got bigger and bigger. Sponsors poured in funds and good performances meant higher appearance fees. With the stakes increasing, racers kept switching to new drugs as tests were developed.

In 1998, a team assistant was busted with a huge quantity of drugs, exposing the scale of the problem. That was cycling’s darkest period, in which use of the blood-boosting drug EPO ran so rampant through the ranks that the sport was in jeopardy.

Cycling has since cleaned up dramatically, with a blood- and urine-testing regimen that is among the most rigorous in professional sport. But the old motivations – glory, money, competitiveness – haven’t changed.

And only a naïf would claim the peloton is lily-white.



A French favourite, the scrappy solo rider who makes a hopeless surge in a gallant last stand against the bunch.


A small escape group that breaks away from the massed peloton in hope that it can maintain a gap to the finish. The breakaway is usually “reeled in.”


The commercial procession of festooned vehicles and mascots that travels the daily course ahead of the riders, distributing trinkets and product samples.


Secondary riders who serve better teammates by shuttling food and drinks, offering protection in the pack, catching breakways, handing over their bike when a leader’s breaks down etc.

Flamme Rouge

The red pennant marking the final kilometre of a stage, where sprinters go crazy and climbers try to hang on to the bitter end.

General Classification (G.C.)

The overall standings of the race, in accumulated time.

Hors catégorie (H.C.)

The highest and most difficult mountain climbs, too tough for even the Tour’s standard 1-4 degrees of categorization.


The elegant little bags frantically handed out to passing riders in the day’s formal “feed zone” that contain power bars, energy drinks, carbohydrate gels, a banana, a fruit tart etc.

Nature Break

The moment when riders pause to answer nature’s call, usually in a secluded roadside area as the TV camera politely turns away.


The main pack of riders who save considerable energy by travelling in a bunch while keeping a close eye on competitors – but are at greater risk of crashes.

Podium Girls

High-heeled models in Tour-themed ensembles who decorate the daily awards ceremony, and have to bend down skillfully while double-kissing the more diminutive winners.


An exciting, explosive racer who can quickly distance himself from the field on short steep climbs but is worn down by the Tour’s 21-stage grind.


The “caregivers” or trainers who prepare feed bags, provide end-of-race massages and, at least historically, also supplied performance-enhancing drugs.


Both the race within the race (intermediate sprints for green-jersey points) and the final breathtaking rush to the finish line. Always watch out for Mark Cavendish, the Manx Missile.


The day’s race, usually described in terms of terrain (flat, mountain, rolling, transition).


Tight, energy-sapping hairpin turns on steep mountain climbs that separate contenders from pretenders.

Time Trial

A short race-against-the-clock stage, favouring pure speed and stamina over usual Tour tactics.

Yellow Jersey

The maillot jaune, mark of the Tour leader, introduced in 1919 as a tribute to the newsprint tint of race sponsor, L’Auto.


3403.5 Length of the 2013 Tour, in kilometres (21 stages)

467 Length of inaugural overnight stage in 1903, in kilometres

198 Number of riders in the 2013 Tour – 9 per team

3 Number of Canadian riders

87h 34’ 47” Winning time of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 Tour (20 stages)

39.83 km/h Wiggins’s average speed in 2012 Tour

1985 The last year a Frenchman, Bernard Hinault, won the Tour

10,000 Number of calories a rider expends on a tough mountain stage

320 Highest wind speed, in km/h, recorded on Mont Ventoux (July 14 stage)

40 Number of hairpin turns on two ascents of Alpe-d’Huez (July 18 stage)

41.6 Overall length of two Alpe-d’Huez ascents in km., with average 7.5 % gradient

4,500 Number of support staff accompanying 2013 Tour

12 million Number of roadside spectators (est.)

23,000 Number of French police officials needed to block traffic, guide riders and restrain spectators

12 Length, in kilometres, of daily advertisers’ caravan that precedes riders and entertains waiting spectators

14 million Number of giveaways distributed along Tour route by sponsors

3.5 billion Estimated number of TV viewers over 21 stages

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