The Tour de France, also known as the Tour, is the most famous and the most important cycling race in the world. The Tour has an association with cycling in the public consciousness that is even greater than the Boston Marathon occupies for marathon running.
The Tour de France was founded by Henri Desgrange (1865–1940) as a newspaper promotion; Desgrange stated then that his idea of a perfect Tour de France would be an event where only one rider finished. This sentiment has influenced the Tour and its legendary difficulty since its inception in 1903. The enduring appeal of the Tour de France is rooted in a combination of a national passion for cycling in both France and all other European countries, coupled with a tough, sometimes hellishly demanding race course that traverses every region of the nation during the three weeks of the competition.
The first Tour of 1903 was over 1,500 miles (2,500 km) in length, divided into only six segments. Racers were expected to ride their bicycles through the night, and none of the racing machines was equipped with more than a single gear. The first derailleur, the mechanical device that permits the bicycle chain to move freely between the rear wheel cogs of the bicycle to allow the rider to change gears, was only permitted for use on the Tour in 1937, despite having being invented by Tullio Campagnolo some years earlier.
It is a testament to the appeal of the Tour de France that American Lance Armstrong, the unprecedented seven time Tour champion, is likely the best known modern day foreigner in France.
The Tour de France is primarily contested as stage race, where the competition is divided into daily segments known as stages. In the 2006 Tour, the race consisted of 20 stages that represented a total distance of 2,230 miles (3,600 km). Most stages commence with a mass start, where all of the cyclists begin the stage at the same time. The winner of an individual stage wins a prize as well as a measure of acclaim, but the most important consequence of the cyclist' performance day to day is their accumulated time from the beginning of the competition. The winner of the Tour de France is not required to succeed in an individual stage to win the event, although many dominant Tour champions win stage races.
In addition to the daily stages, the Tour contains a number of time trial stages. Unlike the mass start of the regular stages, where the riders race as a group, the time trial is conducted as a battle between the individual racers and the clock. Each cyclist is sent from the start at intervals, and the cyclist will spend most of the trial racing either on their own or in the company of a limited number of racers, depending upon whether the racer either catches a cyclist who started the trial ahead of them or if they are caught by a racer who started the trial behind them. The time trial results of each racer form a part of their Tour totals.
At the beginning of each day's racing, the current leader of the Tour de France wears a distinctive yellow jersey, known in French as the maillot jaune to signify to both the other racers and the spectators on the route the identity of the current Tour leader.
In recent years, the Tour de France has begun with a stage known as the prologue. As the Greek origins of the name suggest, a prologue is the introductory event to a larger production. The Tour prologue has been held in places other than France, with the course covered in the prologue not contiguous with the rest of the Tour route. The Tour has opened with prologues in Germany and Ireland, with the cyclists, their gear, and all team personnel flying to the first French stage the next day. Prologues raced in such venues are a recognition by the Tour organizers that the race attracts passionate fan and spectator support in every place where its racers compete.
The traditional final stage of the Tour de France is a segment that finishes along the Champs-Elyeeses, the famous thoroughfare in Paris.
The Tour de France regular stage routes are further categorized in terms of the terrain over which they pass. Tour success is dependent upon a number of diverse factors, none of which is more important that the ability of the racer to conquer the infamous mountain stages that take the racers through demanding sections of the French Alps. The stages of the Tour are described by the general classification of flat, medium mountain, and mountain. The mountain passes through which the Tour course winds for between seven and 10 stages depending upon the route selected by the Tour organizers are so grueling that the outcome of most Tours will de decided by the ability of the racers to climb and to descend the mountains.
The mountain climbs are so important to the ability of the racers to successfully complete the Tour that the race has a separate sub category, the "King of the Mountain," a prize given to the rider who demonstrates the best climbing ability. Mountain climbs are graded on a scale of 1 through 4, plus the "hors" (other) category, with points awarded for the fastest time to reach each peak. The rider who is the King of Mountain wears their own distinctive jersey, in red polka dots.
A grade 3 climb is a 5% grade for at least 3 miles (5 km); a grade 2 climb is a grade of 8.0 to 8.5% for 3 miles. A grade 1 climb is a longer climb, usually between 9 and 12 miles (15-20 km or more), at a grade of approximately 5%. The hors category are the most difficult climbs, as these involve an elevation change of at least 1,000 ft (300 m), over an average grade of at least 7%
It is a daily battle for the racers to ingest enough food to have sufficient energy available to battle the racecourse. The average racer will expend approximately 10,000 calories per day in the mountain stages and between 6,000 and 7,000 calories in the flatter portions. It is a frequent occurrence for a rider to "bonk," the North American slang for simply running out of energy mid stage.
Each of the great champions of the Tour de France has been what the French cycling fans refer to as a rolleur. A rolleur is, an all round talent who can perform well in the more sprint like time trials, who can ride with the mass pack of the cyclists (the peloton) for 90 miles (150 km) or more in the flay stages, and who possesses the strength and the will to race through the mountains. Racing tactics and sophisticated equipment are an important aspect of Tour success, but the physiological characteristics of the rider will also dictate whether a racer will become a Tour champion.
As with many sports, particularly endurance sports such as distance running, cycling is an activity in which any one can participate, without necessarily being competitive. The elite cyclist must first possess a particular physical structure that permits an optimum strength to weight ratio. The strength to weight ratio consideration is of even greater importance when the rider is moving their mass and that of the bicycle against the force of gravity on grades in the Tour mountain stages that exceed the steepest grades that a motorist will encounter on a typical paved North American roadway.
The physiological testing conducted on several Tour de France champions in recent years offers significant support for what physical characteristics are necessary to succeed in this demanding race. Lance Armstrong participated in a series of examinations conducted by the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas during the period in which he won seven Tour championships (1998–2005).
The first test studied Armstrong's strength to weight ratio. At a race weight of 162 lb (74 kg), Armstrong generated over 490 watts of power, more than any other cyclist tested, including the legendary Miguel Indurain (a five time Tour champion between 1991 and 1995), who had competed at a weight of 175 lb (81 kg). Indurain was noted for his remarkable resting pulse of less than 40 beats per minute. Armstrong was also found to have improved his VO2max levels, the amount of oxygen used by muscles for energy production during a set interval (usually 1 minute), by over 18% Armstrong's oxygen capabilities were measured at 85 ml of oxygen per kilogram of muscle mass per minute (a superior, well trained athlete would likely never exceed a reading of 55 ml). Armstrong's capabilities are all the more remarkable as he successfully battled testicular cancer that had spread to his lung in the years prior to his Tour de France success.
The physiological testing of Armstrong also revealed evidence that his body had undergone an adaptation with respect to the distribution of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers. It is an accepted physiological proposition that the
The testing of Armstrong suggested that his training regimen of daily cycling, between three and six hours per day for many years, had altered his slow twitch structure to a percentage of representing greater than 80% of his muscle mass. As a general proposition, the more slow twitch fiber present in the body, the better suited the athlete will be to endurance sports.
Armstrong was also found to produce less lactic acid in his muscles, resulting in less disruption of his rhythm in his mountain climbs due to the discomfort of lactic acid formation.
It is a testament to the intense physiological demands of the Tour de France that doping has exerted an influence throughout the Tour history. In the early days of the race, alcohol, ether, and other substances were commonly used by the riders to dull the pain of their exertions. In the 1960s, the use of performance enhancing amphetamines were common. British rider Tom Simpson died as a result of amphetamine use in the 1967 Tour.
In the late 1990s, the doping focus in the Tour turned to the use of erythropoietin (EPO), the synthetic variety of the naturally occurring human hormone that stimulates red blood cell production. EPO consequently provides the user with a greater capacity to transport oxygen, a significant advantage in endurance sports such as cycling. Several cycling teams were implicated in EPO use, with a number of individual cyclists banned for EPO use. Armstrong was at the epicenter of various EPO allegations, although he has consistently denied using performance-enhancing drugs and has never been the subject of a real-time positive doping test.