The Newbie Watchers Guide to the Tour de France

I have a friend named Matt. I hate Matt. Matt is that friend that every casual sports fan has who somehow claims to know everything about every sport and every player. Matt is the friend who, with no small amount of delight, schools you on the ins and outs of handball when it is televised during the Olympics once every four years.

Well Matt, I know how to use Google too, but I choose to spend my time doing things other than searching for facts on obscure sports to stuff in the face of my friends.

However, unlike handball and fencing and dressage (what is dressage?), cycling is a sport with a real following, and it might actually help you look smart (not smug) to know a few things about it the pros.

So, with the Tour de France starting this weekend, we have put together the complete Newbie’s Guide to watching cycling’s biggest event, so that you can finally shut Matt up.


What is the Tour de France?

Cycling’s biggest event.

It is a 3-week gut-grinding race that rides all across France (and occasionally dips into neighboring countries). This year will be the 103rd annual installment of the race. The pros average between 110 to 135 miles per day, every day, for three weeks. Woof.


What’s the important history?

The thing you’ll hear most is that it was started in 1903 by a struggling French newspaper, L’Auto, in an effort to help boost circulation.

Some other important facts:

1. There have only ever been three Americans to win a TdF: Greg Lemond, Floyd Landis, and Lance Armstrong, but…

2. Both Floyd Landis, and (of course) Lance Armstrong had their title stripped from them in the aftermath of doping scandals, leaving only Greg Lemond as a legitimate American winner.

3. The 1990’s and 2000’s were dark times for cycling in terms of doping scandals. Most of the pro field was implicated in some way or another. Armstrong won six consecutive titles from 1999-2005, but after he was stripped, it was declared that no alternative winner would be named, since so many of the other riders had been implicated in doping as well.


How does the race work?

The race is broken up into daily stages. This year’s route has 21 stages, broken down into 9 flat stages, 1 hilly stage, 9 mountain stages, 2 individual time trials, and 2 rest days. The total distance is 2186 miles (3,535 km).

Each day the riders race to the finish line, and whoever completes the course in the lowest cumulative amount of time (adding up the totals of each individual stage) is declared the winner.

How do the teams work?

Imagine a sport in which the entire team is put together and tasked with the lone goal of making it easier for the super star. Imagine if instead of Kevin Love hopelessly clogging things up for Lebron James, Love’s job was to defend for Lebron, get rebounds for Lebron, and then give Lebron the ball and try and take out his defender so that Lebron can individually score as many point as possible.

That, in a nutshell, is how pro cycling teams work. A team of 9 riders starts the Tour, and are tasked with “riding for” a designated leader. In cycling, it is said that riders can save up to 40% of their energy by drafting behind someone else (that is, riding directly behind their back wheel, allowing them to break wind). So, it is the job of the team to make sure that the superstar is basically protected almost all of the time. Whoever the eventual winner of Tour is may only ride alone for less than 100 miles of the 2186 total miles of the race.


That sounds sorta boring to watch…

It is. Imagine someone video taping you shaving your neck and livecasting it to millions. It would be very boring, except for the few moments where you mess up and start bleeding, and everyone sits on the edge of your seat to see if you knicked the jugular.

That’s basically the way a pro cycling race works. It’s a lot of shots of them pedaling, with the occassional attack that’s exciting for a few seconds and then it’s more shots of people pedaling. Even hardcore fans admit that watching live on TV sucks.

So, don’t watch it live. NBC has the telecast rights, but NBC Sports will run an hour-long recap show in the evenings. This is what you watch. Other options are to watch highlights on YouTube or just follow the results online. This will save you time, and still give you all the information you need to keep Matt quiet in the corner.


Who do I follow?

The big name favorites to win are Chris Froome (team Sky) and Nairo Quintana (team Movistar), along with Alberto Contador (team Tinkoff) and Richie Porte (team BMC).

England’s Chris Froome is defending champ who also won in 2013. He is cycling’s biggest star right now, and is heavily favored. Quintana, though, is a young Colombian upstart who finished second to Froome in both 2013 and 2015. He has shown the ability to compete with Froome on the mountain stages (where Froome dominates, and the race is often won), and his team (Movistar) appears poised to try and unseat the Briton.

Chris Froome after his 2013 Tour win

Chris Froome after his 2013 Tour win

Nairo Quintana on stage twenty of the 2015 Tour de France

Nairo Quintana on stage twenty of the 2015 Tour de France

How about some Americans?

Tejay Van Garderen is the heir apparent to the American cycling title. The Washington-born 27-year-old is considered by many to be the future of American cycling.

Taylor Phinney is another one of America’s promising youngsters. The 26-year-old is coming off of a gruesome crash in which he broke his femur, but he has been progressing quickly and is hopeful for a good Tour. He also went to my high school, so I am able to shove that in Matt’s face despite the fact that I only saw him around school a few times. Both Phinney and Van Garderen are racing for team BMC.

What about someone to hate? I need someone to hate.

Hate Lance Armstrong. We can all agree on that. Just throw a string of creatively poisonous adjectives together and then direct them at Lance. You basically can’t say enough bad things about the guy.

And when Matt inevitably comes back with the tired “I don’t hate him for doping. In that era, everyone doped.” You swiftly counter with “He didn’t just dope, he also ruined a lot of people’s careers and lives by manipulating them and attacking anyone who tried to expose him.” And then you exalt as Matt sheepishly realizes he’s defending a sociopath.

So there it is, your guide for watching the Tour de France like an expert, the first time. If you have questions, ask them in the comments section or on Twitter @bikelifecities, and we will clear everything up for you.

Go ride!