Introducing the Tour de France
Meera: - The Tour de France is an annual cycle race which takes place in July throughout France and its surrounding countries. And this year's tour saw 22 teams of cyclists battle for a variety of titles and prizes. I joined the Garmin-Transitions team out on the road to see it all in action, as it's not just about winning the overall race, which is what Matt White, their sports director, explained to me when I got there.
Matt: - Well, for people who were looking from the outside, I suppose it's the biggest mobile sporting circus in the world. You know, we're travelling pretty much 20 days - 20 hotels, all parts of France, and neighbouring countries, and it's one of the toughest, if not the toughest bike race on the calendar.
Meera: - It's the key one really, isn't it?
Matt: - It is, because it's global. It has so much global attention. I don't necessarily think it's the hardest climbs or the fastest here or there, but everything that makes the tour "the tour" - that added pressure from the media, from the sponsors, from the riders, from that global audience - that's what makes it so special.
Meera: - And how is it actually pieced together? So how does it work?
Matt: - Well, there's between 20 and 22 teams depending on how many the organisers pick and basically that's the top 20 teams in the world. It's broken up over 20 stages. The route is different every year. A lot of the stages are similar or use similar climbs or similar finishes, but the route goes clockwise and anti-clockwise. We always finish in Paris and always start in somewhere different. And then in that 3 to 3500 kilometres, there's a big variety of stages -between flat stages for the sprinters, mountain stages for the climbers, and intermediate stages for the guys in-between.
Meera: - And is it always a consistent length?
Matt: - Give or take a couple of 100 kilometres. Basically, the guys race between 150 and 200 kilometres every day. So, sometimes it's 3,200 kilometres, sometimes 3,500, so roughly the same.
Meera: - As well as having the stages, there's also different terrains and different kind of land, so how's that broken up?
Matt: - Well, we're always going into the Alps and always going into the Pyrenees. I think that Pyrenees has steeper climbs, harder climbs, and it's usually a little bit hotter down there, and then the Alps are usually better quality roads, and not as steep, but faster climbs.
Meera: - There's also cobbles involved, aren't there?
Matt: - Not all the time. I think the last time we went over cobbles was 2004, so it's been six years. This year has been a special tour for that.
Meera: - And I always imagine that's actually quite a challenge?
Matt: - Well it's a race within a race because some of these guys do race on cobbles and the classics in April, but a lot of them are very unfamiliar to that sort of racing and it certainly did put a cat amongst the pigeons that day.
Meera: - And how does the actual points or the scoring work? So - there are different jerseys - how are these broken up?
Matt: - Obviously the most important jersey, the one that everyone knows, is the yellow jersey and that's the guy with the lowest overall time of that stage of the race. Then there's the green jersey which is the points jersey, or the sprinter's jersey, and that's contested. There's two intermediate sprints per day along the road and then the overall points at the finish line. The sprint stages have got more points than the mountain stages, so it's always a sprinter who wins that green jersey. Then there's the polka dot jersey and that's for the best climber (and the climbs are categorised between small climbs or large climbs - with a higher to lower point system). That's the best overall climber, and then the white jersey is for the best rider under 26 years of age.
Meera: - So there are different roles within a team, aren't there? So there are different key cyclists or players?
Matt: - And there's different teams within teams - teams have got different focuses for the Tour de France, so they're bringing different riders depending on what their goals are. A team like ours - we've got a bit of a mix, or we did at the start anyway, before our team leader crashed out. We came to try to run top 10 or podium on general classification, and then we've got one of the world's best sprinters - so we had to send a mix between the guys who could support both those roles.
Meera: - So what would you say the crucial things are that team Garmin or Garmin-Transitions are going for at this tour?
Matt: - Well, it's been a tricky one because of Christian crashing out on day 2, so we've had to change our focus. Christian was obviously our team leader and he's finished 4th and 8th in the Tour de France for the last two years, and for him to crash out, it was a big blow for us. But then we just changed our tact - and obviously Tyler Farrar for the sprint stages. But it was an opportunity for some of these guys to step up and Ryder Hesjedal has done a super job so far and will continue for the rest of the tour.
Meera: - As well as the jerseys, there are also time trials that take place and they have a different agenda altogether?
Matt: - There is - that's very, very individual. Well some years they have a teams' time trial. This year there wasn't one. Last year there was a teams' time trial - that's every man for himself. In this year's tour there's only the prologue, which is the first stage, and then the penultimate stage in Boudreaux, which is a very long 50-kilometre time trial.
Meera: - And I guess just to summarize then, what would you say makes the tour what it is?
Matt: - Well, I think tradition. You know - it's in France, it's July, a lot of people are on holiday. And I think in the last 10 or 15 years, the race has become a lot more global - and you see fans and spectators from everywhere around the world. There's not too many sporting events that happen to that degree every single year, so everyone knows where to find the Tour de France - it's on the roads in July.