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Tour de France 101: Beginner’s Guide

This article is from 2015. To read the VeloNews Beginner’s Guide to the Tour de France from 2022, click here.

Tour de France 101: A beginner’s guide to understanding the race

By Michael Better and Elliott Parshall
Photos by Tim de Waele

It’s that time of the year again. People from all over the world will flock to the hills and flatlands of France to see one of the world’s greatest annual sporting spectacles. Others will turn on the television and watch for hours and listen to the live race coverage. So, have you found yourself watching the Tour de France, wondering what is going on? Who is that guy riding on the front, and what team is that? VeloNews’ Tour de France 101 guide will help you identify top riders and understand the commentators because let’s face it, cycling is a world and language of its own.

Part one: Recognizing the riders

Here’s a list of the top riders at the Tour de France, and what to look for in their riding styles to identify each when watching the race. This category is divided up into general classification riders, sprinters, American riders, and all-rounders.

General classification riders to watch:

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo)

Contador is an explosive rider who has an unparalleled acceleration when going uphill. His style is not overly aggressive — you will not always see him initiating attacks, but rather following others and attacking when his opponents are vulnerable. Furthermore, he is easy to spot because most of the time, he climbs out of the saddle.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar)

Quintana is South America’s hope for Tour victory, no South American has ever won the Tour. He is one of the smaller riders at the Tour and therefore can sometimes hide himself from the camera in the group. When riding, his face is almost always expressionless, whether he is just cruising along or attacking up a climb.

Chris Froome (Team Sky)

Froome is a pure climber, and a great time trialist. Froome loves to attack in the mountains, and unlike most riders, he attacks while sitting in the saddle, usually pedaling at a very high cadence. His riding style is unique, as he rides with his elbows sticking out, appearing to be constantly looking down at his stem.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)

Nibali is a fantastic climber and also an opportunist. He looks to gain time on his rivals any way he can, not just climbing the high mountains. Nibali is a cagey descender, so look for him to possibly attack on the downhill instead of the uphill. He will be easy to spot, as he is the Italian national champion, and the colors of Italy stand out against the light blue of his team jersey.

Top sprinters

Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step)

Cavendish is one of the smaller sprinters, but what he lacks in size, he makes up for in explosiveness. Nicknamed the “Manx Missile,” Cavendish’s low profile while sprinting differentiates him from the other, much larger sprinters. You might find him hidden behind lead-out man Mark Renshaw at the beginning of a big sprint.

Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal)

Formerly the 2014 German road champion (he will be wearing the red jersey of Lotto-Soudal at the Tour, not shown above), Greipel will be one of the best pure sprinters in this year’s Tour. Due to his hulking mass, he has earned himself the fitting nickname of ‘the Gorilla.’ He does not have Cavendish’s quick acceleration, so look for him start his sprint from a long way out and wind up his speed using a big gear.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

Kristoff is not your average sprinter. The big Norwegian has an engine like no other rider and uses a massive gear when sprinting, continuing to accelerate all the way to the line. Look for Kristoff to reduce the impact of Cavendish’s explosive acceleration by initiating the sprint early. Due to his size, Kristoff is also a threat on stage 4, on the cobblestones. Spot the Norwegian by his neon-accented Katusha jersey.

Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis)

Bouhanni is a wildcard when it comes to the bunch sprints. His team is not as strong as the other sprinters teams’, so he may have to follow wheels in order to get into a good position ahead of the finish. Bouhanni is a powerful sprinter and has the stamina to win from a long way out, but having recently crashed at the French national championships, he enters the Tour with bruised ribs. Look for Bouhanni to possibly take a stage late in the Tour, as he recovers from his recent crash.

American riders to watch

Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team)

Van Garderen has twice finished fifth in the Tour de France and is looking for a high overall placing again this year. He rides for the BMC squad, so he’ll be decked out in black and red, but you can spot him on the climbs by his white-framed sunglasses. Van Garderen doesn’t always follow the explosive attacks of the other climbers, but watch for him riding a lone, steady tempo to bridge back up to the leaders.[vc_single_image border_color=”grey” img_link_target=”_self” img_size=”full” image=”376007″]

Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin)

Talansky is another American hope for a high overall finish. After a memorable day last year when he rode 50 miles solo in an effort to make the time cut, his never-give-up attitude captured the hearts of many. Nicknamed “Pitbull,” look for Talansky to be alongside van Garderen, battling up the climbs in his green argyle team kit. Talansky is also national champion in the individual time trial, so he will wear the stars and stripes on stage 1 in Utrecht.

Tyler Farrar (MTN-Qhubeka)

Farrar is America’s fast-man looking to battle out the sprint stages alongside Cavendish and Greipel. Farrar’s lone Tour de France stage win came on July 4 back in 2011, and he looks to add another one this year. Farrar will not have as strong a lead-out train, so look for him to position himself on the wheel of other sprinters to set himself up for the dash to the line. Also, that black-and-white striped kit is hard to miss in the bunch.

All-rounders to watch

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo)

Sagan is a once-in-a-generation rider, having won the points classification three consecutive years — every time he’s started the Tour. Coming to road racing from a mountain bike background, Sagan’s arms are usually straight, and he seems to sit upright on the bike, compared to other riders. Also, it is very likely he will be wearing a green jersey most of the Tour, as the leader of the points classification. If he isn’t in green, look for the red, white, and blue of his Slovak national champion’s jersey.

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Valverde, the “Green Bullet,” is known for his climbing ability, but as his nickname implies, he has explosive finishing speed. Having recently won the Spanish national road race, look for him wearing the red and yellow of his home country. Also, he’ll likely be alongside team leader Quintana in the mountains.

John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin)

Degenkolb doesn’t have the climbing ability of Valverde, but he is able to get over the medium mountains and finish a stage off with his explosive sprint. Degenkolb is easy to spot in a sprint because his head bobs up and down when he is going all-out for the line. Also, look for Degenkolb at the front of the race on stage 4, which includes multiple sectors of cobblestones. Degenkolb won Paris-Roubaix early this year, a race made famous by its cobblestone sectors.

Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge)

Matthews has earned himself the nickname “Bling,” by his ability to with panache. He is a punchy rider that excels well when there is a slight incline up to the finish. Look for Matthews to be at the front of the race in his white and green kit on stage 3, as the tough finish atop the Mur will suit him perfectly. He often launches his sprint late in the finale.

Part Two: Understanding the commentators

Here’s a list of commonly used terms and phrases you might hear the TV commentators say during the Tour de France.Domestique: A rider who works for the benefit of the team and the team leader. They often go back to the team car to collect bottles and food, and ride at the front of the group to block the wind for their team leader.

Peloton: The main group of riders in a race.

Breakaway: This is a group of one or more riders who are ahead of the peloton during the race. They may win, they may not, but either way, they’re on the TV for their sponsors.

Musette bag: A small shoulder bag filled with food and drink given to riders at a designated point each day out on the course.

Flamme rouge: A red flag displayed to signify one kilometer to go until the finish. It hangs from an inflated archway across the road.

Gruppetto/autobus: The group of riders that rides behind the main peloton. They have been dropped by the peloton, often on mountain stages, and can consist of a big group of riders, usually all of the sprinters.

Echelon: A line of riders seeking maximum draft in a crosswind, resulting in a diagonal line across the road.

Shelled: A rider who is having extreme difficulty keeping up with a fast pace race in a way they did not anticipate. They’ll probably end up in the grupetto.

Full gas/putting the hammer down: A rider or group of riders giving it everything they have, often leading out a sprint or attacking up a climb. This is also what it takes to make the breakaway.

Hitting the wall/bonking: When a rider has used all of his energy and is struggling to make it to the finish. Riders can be seen almost coming to a complete standstill when they bonk going up climbs. Perhaps they didn’t eat enough from that musette bag.

Riding tempo: When a team is setting pace on the front of the peloton. The pace is not extremely hard, but the riders are not going slow either. This is a task for domestiques.

Lead-out/lead-out train: A team will ride on the front of the peloton in a single file line attempting to put its sprinter in the best possible position to win. The front of the peloton can get quite hectic on sprint stages, with multiple lead-out trains trying to control the front.

Bury himself: Find a shovel, because by the time you are done working for the team, you are going to need to be put to rest.

Stick the knife in: Performing an attack that cracks the rider that is trying to stay with you.

Road captain: Usually the most-experienced rider on a team at the Tour de France, not necessarily the team leader. Their job is to make sure the day’s tactics given by the team director are accomplished.

Sticky bottle: When a rider gets a bottle from their team car, holds on a bit longer than usual, and the team director gives them a lift forward by accelerating the car. This is against the rules, but if done quickly, the judges will not issue a penalty.

Leaving it out on the road: Usually heard at the end of a stage when a rider is lying on the ground, totally exhausted.