Le Tour de France, 2012

June 30, 2012

Every summer, the ultimate cycling race, le Tour de France, takes place on the roads of France and surrounding countries.  The race was first held in 1903, and generally lasts approximately three weeks.   The route goes, very roughly, around the “circumference” of France; the direction is clockwise or counter-clockwise in alternating years.   It always features significant segments in the Pyrenees and the Alps.  Most race days (stages) are point-to-point races involving the whole field; a few days are generally set aside as “time trials”:  riders racing against the clock over a fixed course.  Teams of riders (typically, 8-10 riders in each of ~20 teams) compete for a variety of distinctions.  The overall (general classification, or GC) winner is the rider with the lowest cumulative time.  Recognition is also given to the daily stage winners, and there are special prizes for the best sprinter, and the best climber (“King of the Mountains”).  The current leaders in these categories wear distinctive jerseys, during the Tour as well as at the finish: the yellow jersey (the maillot jaune) for the overall (GC) leader, the green jersey for the best sprinter, and the polka-dot jersey for the King of the Mountains.  In recent years, there has also been a white jersey for the best young (less than 26 years of age) rider in the GC.

This year’s edition of le Tour, the 99th, started today with the 6.4 km prologue in Liege, Belgium, and will end on Sunday, July 22. in Paris.  The race will comprise 20 stages following the prologue, and will cover 3,497 km (2,173 miles).   The stages include:

  • 9 flat stages,
  • 5 mountain stages with 2 summit finishes,
  • 4 medium mountain stages,
  • 2 individual time-trial stages

There are also two rest days included in the program.  This year, there are 22 teams and 198 riders in the Tour.

This year’s route does not have as many mountain stages and summit finishes as some recent Tours.  The mountain stages are often of special interest, since the Tour has frequently been won, or lost, there; it is the most likely place for someone to open up a large time gap.  Less emphasis on climbing means that good all-around riders will have a relative advantage.

Significant climbs on the Tour are ranked in categories, according to difficulty; in order of increasing difficulty, there are Category 4, 3, 2, 1, and HC (Hors Catégorie) ascents.   For example, in the Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyrogudes stage of this year’s race, there is a Category 2 climb, of 8 km (5 miles) at a 5.2% grade, and an HC climb to the finish of 11.7 km (7.2 miles) at a 7.7% grade.  This year’s Tour includes 25 climbs of Category 2 or higher.

The details of the classification system have often been murky, but a few years ago, all was clarified in this USENET post on fr.rec.sport.cyclisme:

Re: Catégories de cols

Ben, c’est assez simple: Tu prends une 2CV. Si celle-ci monte en 4ème, alors c’est un col de 4ème catégorie. Même chose avec la 3ème, 2ème puis 1ère vitesse. Maintenant, si la 2CV ne monte pas, il s’agit du col “hors catégorie”.

A rough translation for those who don’t know French:

Well, it’s quite simple: you take a [Citroën] 2CV. If it climbs in 4th [gear], it’s a 4th category climb. Same thing with 3rd, 2nd and 1st gear. If the 2CV won’t climb at all, it’s a ‘hors catégorie’ col.

The current race leader, following the prologue today, is the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, from Team Radio Shack / Nissan.

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