Beginner’s Guide to Watching a Grand Tour

This article originally appeared in Bicycle Club, May 2021

It’s that time of year again, and what a wonderful time it is, especially if you are a cyclist! Why? Because coming very soon is the Giro d’Italia, followed just a few weeks later by the Tour de France, and then after that we have the Vuelta a Espana!

Three weeks of full speed racing for each event! Gruesome close ups on grimacing faces as riders fight against the mountains and their desire to stop riding! Day after glorious day of getting home from a hard day at work, eating dinner and then sitting down to watch the world’s greatest cyclists duelling against each other set against the often beautiful and enchanting landscapes of Italy, France and Spain.

Each of these events is known as a ‘Grand Tour’, and only these three have earned the right to be know as Grand Tours. The Tour of Britain, the Tour of Qatar, the Tour of Denmark, any other national tour (stage race) apart from these three of Italy, France and Spain, cannot – must not – be called a ‘Grand Tour’. At three weeks in length and also as the three oldest tours in the world, the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta have attained an elevated status. Indeed, if cycling is a religion, and a race acts as a church, these three Grand Tours are the cathedrals of cycling. 

Rome, Italy, the riders pass the Colosseum, 2018, Stage 21 of the Giro d’Italia. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Why do we call them ‘Stage Races’? 

In professional cycling we have ‘one day’ races and ‘stage’ races. A one day race is just that: riders turn up in the morning, race, someone wins, and they go home on the same day. A stage race however is a multi-day race. The Tour de France is 21 days long, with riders racing 21 days, so we say it has ’21 stages’. 

Stage Winners vs. the Overall Winner

The overall winner of the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta is the champion. All riders in the race (usually around 180 riders) have their time from each day of racing added to the days before. The overall winner is decided by who covered the entire route in the fastest time. That route will be somewhere between 2000 to 3500km in total, and sometimes the overall winner will be decided by a handful of seconds. In the 1989 Tour de France, American Greg Lemond beat Frenchman Laurent Fignon by a cruel 8 seconds, all lost on the final stage in Paris. They had raced 3285km, over 87 hrs and 38 minutes 

1989 Tour de Fance.
Laurent Fignon sits in his team car, devastated by the loss by 8 seconds, to Greg LeMond. (Photo by Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

In addition to the overall winner, each stage has an individual winner as well. Winning even one stage in the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France is extremely prestigious, and just one win can change a rider’s career, making them moreattractive to sponsors. Although rare, it is possible to win the Grand Tour without winning a single stage, if your combined time over all the stages is less than your rivals.

Cycling is a Team Sport

Many people don’t realize that cycling is not an individual sport such as marathon racing, because at the end of a race there is indeed only one person standing on the podium: however, it is. In the Grand Tours, teams are usually made up of 8 or 9 riders. Each team generally has one overall contender that they believe has the best chance of winning the entire race. For the most part, the rest of the team is doing everything they can to put that rider in the best position to win. If an overall contender drops off the back of the peloton (the main group of riders) from a crash or mechanical problem, his teammates will wait and lead him back to the group. The teammates of a leader will also help protect him whenever they can, from other teams’ attacks.

Within the team, though all riders must ultimately be prepared to sacrifice themselves for the leader’s chances, there will be 2-3 riders capable of winning a stage and if the conditions are right, they will be allowed to try to take a win. Others on the team will have no other job than to bring water and food to the leader, and to offer up their wheel or even their bike if the leader needs it. 

A rider from Team Katusha collects water bottles for his teammates as he does domestique duties during the sixteenth stage of the 2014 Tour de France. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The teams of the overall contenders are often seen at the front of the peloton, trying to control the race and prevent attacks from other teams. This also is a strategy to keep their contender safe. At the back is a lot of bumping and fighting for position, and if a crash occurs in the peloton, you want to be in front of it, not behind. Sometimes, one team will contain two riders capable of winning the overall title. This is where teams can implode as the two stars begin to fight against each other.

The Tour De France 2012, saw what many perceived to be an internal battle between Christopher Froome (front) and overall winner Bradley Wiggins (background), as Froome was perceived by many to be stronger than his teammate. (Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

The Specialties of Racers

Not all teams enter the Tour de France expecting to have a rider as the overall winner. Some teams are built to win stages. Peter Sagan’s team, Bora Hansgrohe, is a good example of this. Sagan is the leader of the team but not equipped to win the overall race, instead he focuses on stage wins. 

Peter Sagan of Slovakia and Team Bora Hansgrohe makes it 5 stage wins and a Green Sprint Jersey overall win at the  Tour de France 2018. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Cyclists are specialists, and through there are some very talented all rounders, most have skills and physical traits that make them good at certain styles of racing, and not so good at others.

Climbers excel on steep mountains. They generally have a slim, lightweight physique. A Grand Tour always features several days of riding in the high mountains. Many of these stages finish on the top of mountain peaks, and this is where the climbers shine.

Fabio Aru of Italy takes victory and shows off his climber’s physique. 2014 Giro d’Italia. (Photo by Harry Engels – Velo/Getty Images)

Sprinters are capable of rapid accelerations and putting out an immense amount of power over a fairly short period of time. You will see sprint finishes on relatively flat stages, as mountainous ones tend to break up the group and leave the sprinters toward the back. During a sprint finish, it is the job of a sprinter’s team to provide a “lead out” to allow him to conserve energy. In other words, keep him at the front of the group until the last few hundred meters where he can finally give 100% to the finish.

Giro Rosa 2019, Women’s Race. The Bigla Team celebrate a win by their sprinter, having all worked had to ensure the win. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Time trial specialists are capable of maintaining a high speed over a very long distance. They usually work well on their own, without the help of a team. The Tour will have a few time trial stages where the riders start individually and ride the course alone to get their time. A good time trialist can gain a lot of time in the overall standings on a day like this. Time trial specialists are also quite capable of winning a stage on a breakaway.

2015 Tour de France. Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, a brilliant time trial rider, wearing the leader’s jersey after winning an earlier time trial. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Early in the race, a rider or a group of riders may choose to break away from the peloton and see if they can win the race on their own. They are often by the peloton (the name for the largest group of riders on the road) caught since they don’t have their teammates there to share the work load. They are occasionally able to stay away from the group for the finale and win.

The Domestique is a lesser known and less glamorous role on the team. These are the riders that work exclusively for the benefit of the team. They are responsible for protecting their team leader, doing the hard work at the front with little chance of victory for themselves. They also bring up food and water from the team car, assist their leader back to the peloton after a crash or mechanical, and set the pace for leadouts. If a team car is not nearby when a team leader has a mechanical issue, it’s not uncommon for a domestique to hand their bike over to allow their leader to continue without losing time. While “domestique” translates to “servant” in French, it is not a job to be taken lightly. No rider has ever won a grand tour without a great team around him, and a victory for an individual is considered a victory for the team. A domestique rider can often go through his entire professional cycling career without ever winning a single race, yet their bank account will reflect just how important they are to the smooth functioning of a winning team. Team leaders share their winnings with their teammates and also the team mechanics and sometimes other team staff when they win.

The Jerseys

At the end of each stage, in addition to acknowledging the stage winner, four special jerseys are awarded. They are handed off from rider to rider depending who is leading the following competitions:

1. RACE LEADER: 

GIRO D’ITALIA: PINK JERSEY

Simon Yates of Great Britain and Team Mitchelton-Scott wears the Pink Jersey at the Giro d’Italia 2018.  (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

TOUR DE FRANCE: YELLOW JERSEY

VUELTA A ESPANIA: RED JERSEY

These are the most important and prestigious jersey awarded in a Grand Tour  and are amongst the most famous jerseys in cycling. Throughout a Grand Tour, several different riders can wear a jersey, as it is given to the rider with the lowest combined time after each stage. The rider presented with the leader’s jersey after the final stage is the overall winner.

2. KING OF THE MOUNTAINS:

GIRO D’ITALIA: BLUE JERSEY

TOUR DE FRANCE: RED POLKA DOTS JERSEY

VUELTA A ESPANIA: BLUE POLKA DOTS JERSEY

Also known as the King of the Mountains jersey. Throughout a mountain stage there will be several climbs. The first riders to the top of each climb receive points. The number of points and number of riders eligible for points is determined by the difficulty of the climb. In recent years time bonuses have also been on offer for the first handful of riders over a summit finish, encouraging the various leaders of the race to fight for these valuable seconds.

3. POINTS CLASSIFICATION:

GIRO D’ITALIA: RED JERSEY

TOUR DE FRANCE: GREEN JERSEY

Primoz Roglic of Slovenia and Team Jumbo – Visma  in the Green Points Jersey at the Vuelta a Espana. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

VUELTA A ESPANIA: GREEN JERSEY

Also known as the Sprinters Jersey, these are awarded to the leader of the points classification. Points are awarded for finishing a stage in a high position, and for winning intermediate sprints that are along the route each day. Riders can earn points by being the first to cross various “checkpoints” throughout a stage. These intermediate sprints can add excitement to a long flat stage.

4. BEST YOUNG RIDER

FOR EVERY GRAND TOUR: WHITE JERSEY

All of the competition jersey winners of the Tour de France, with the white jersey for Best Young Rider on the left, worn by Andrew Talasky, USA. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

The white jersey is awarded to the best young rider under 25 with the best overall time. If the fastest rider under 25 also wins another jersey, they will wear the more prestigious award, and the white jersey will go to the second fastest under 25. At last year’s Tour de France, Tadej Pogacar of Slovenia (22) held the overall winner’s jersey and also the Best Young Rider Jersey. 


I hope that helps you to understand the upcoming Grand Tours better! With a little bit of knowledge, an otherwise confusing blur of colours and riders can begin to unfold into an enthralling game of chess on two wheels at high speed! 

Author: crankpunk

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist.

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