Tour de France - how does it work?

New to the Tour? Here's a quick run down of how exactly the race works

The Tour de France is often described as the greatest show on Earth. More than 3000km covered across 21 stages in just over three weeks. 

For those new to the sport, there can be a lot to take in. So, Rouleur has made a simple guide to cycling’s most famous race. 

Held each year in July (Friday July 1 to Sunday July 4 in 2022) the Tour sees 22 teams made up of eight riders race over 3000km in total – culminating on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The race route is broken up into 21 stages across a variety of terrains with just three rest days over the course of the Grand Tour.

Despite being a French race, the Tour often begins in another country – this is known as the Grand Départ, with Denmark hosting the first three stages in this year’s edition.

Stages vary from being pan-flat, where a bunch sprint normally determines the winner, to mountainous stages, where riders can sometimes climb over a thousand metres to mountaintop finish lines.

Between one and three time trials are generally included within the three weeks too – these races against the clock can make or break a rider’s chance of winning the Tour.

Tadej Pogacar at the 2021 Tour de FranceThe yellow jersey, also known as the maillot jaune by natives, is worn by the overall race leader, the rider who has completed the entire race in the shortest total time (known as the General Classification, or GC).

Most teams have a leader, their strongest rider, who has the general classification as their objective. Their teammates, traditionally known as domestiques, will work for them over the three weeks to try and get them close to the top of the standings. 

They’ll do anything from fetching them their lunch and water bottles to sheltering them from the wind - even swapping bikes should they suffer a puncture.

The maillot jaune is fiercely fought for but over the course of the three weeks, it is the riders that can climb and time trial well who come out on top.

For example, while sprinter Mark Cavendish may have a record-equalling 34 Tour de France stage wins, he will never win the GC because he can’t keep up with the race’s best climbers in the mountains.

The sprinters compete for a different prize during the Tour though, with the green jersey being awarded to the rider who earns the most points on each stage (also known as the points classification).

Mark Cavendish sprints to a stage victory at the 2022 Tour de France

Some teams come to the Tour with the maillot vert as their main goal. Their team will be comprised of a sprinter and a ‘lead-out train’ – teammates with the specific task of helping their sprinter be the first man over the line.

Points are given to the riders who cross the finish line first as well as at intermediate sprints in the middle of each stage. More points are on offer on flat stages to give sprinters a better chance of winning the classification.

For the mountain goats within the peloton, there’s a different competition that they can try to win, should they not be featuring in hunt for the maillot jaune. The polka dot jersey is awarded to the rider that accumulates the most points in the king of the mountains classification. 

These are awarded at the top of each categorised climb, with the race organisers ranking climbs by difficulty from four, the least challenging, to one and then the most severe, hors-categorie. The tougher the climb, the more points up for grabs.

The last jersey on offer at the Tour is for the best young rider. The competition works in the same way as the general classification – with the rider completing the route in the shortest total time topping the standings.

Riders aged 25 and under compete for the chance to wear the white jersey on their back. 

Lastly, while not a competition that warrants a jersey, the rider that is the most active on each stage will be awarded the most combative rider award.

It is normally awarded to the rider that spent the most kilometres in the day’s breakaway and the last to be caught by the peloton, if at all.

The combativity award means that the winning rider wears a red number on their back for the following day’s stage.

Away from the many competitions that decide how the Tour is raced, there are some unwritten rules that all riders must follow.

Most notable of all of these is the respect that the maillot jaune holds. The rider wearing the jersey isn’t just leading the standings, he is essentially in charge of the race.

If the racing has yet to properly kick off and the race leader stops for a call of nature, a mechanical problem or, even worse, he crashes, then the rest of the riders must wait for him.

However, if we’re into the decisive part of a stage, the yellow jersey’s rivals may not be as forgiving. It all comes down to the circumstances at the time of course, with every rider viewing these unwritten rules in a slightly different way depending on how it impacts their race.

It’s not just the maillot jaune that holds the power though. When conditions out on the road are treacherous, the experienced heads in the peloton can decide to neutralise the racing to stop riders getting hurt.

A breakaway group at the 2022 Tour de France week one

This happened on the opening stage of the 2020 Tour de France, when the riders neutralised a descent to the finish line after torrential rain caused several crashes.

For the smaller teams, given wildcards to participate at the Tour, they often have an unenviable task. Their riders are urged to get into the day’s breakaway to both give the peloton something to chase and to boost their team sponsors’ airtime. 

It isn’t uncommon for these breakaways to be doomed before they even start.

Finally, the most important unwritten rule at the Tour is what happens on the final stage into Paris.

The final day does not see the riders contest the overall standings, regardless of how few seconds separate them.

Instead, it is a day of two halves, the first is a procession of champagne and photo opportunities amongst the riders that have made it that far. Once the streets of Paris are reached though, the concentration faces return, with a sprint – on the most famous finish line in cycling – to be won.