In case you haven't noticed, and I know most of you haven't, one of the greatest sporting events of the year is heading into its third and final week, the Tour de France cycling race. If all you know about cycling is that Lance Armstrong doped his way to seven titles, then you're missing out on an extraordinary sporting event. It's not just a race for a yellow jersey; it's much, much more. Allow me to explain.
The cyclists are spit into 22 teams, nine cyclists per team at the start. Of the nine, only one is projected to vie for the Yellow, Green or Polka Dot jersey. Think of each team as an offensive football squad. One rider is designated before the race as the person who will pilot the team for the jersey he has the best chance to win. Think of him as the quarterback. The rest of the team is his offensive line whose job it is to surround and protect the quarterback in his quest for the jersey.
If it is decided before the race begins that the team will go for the Yellow Jersey (Which is for the quickest cumulative time it takes to finish the entire three-week, 2,000 plus miles) the linemen take control of the race by making sure they're at or near the front of the pack (Known as a peloton) controlling the speed of the race and making sure that none of the other contenders for the Yellow break away from the pack.
The way they protect their quarterback is by racing directly in front of him, shielding him from the headwinds. It's said that when riding in someone's slipstream you will exert about 30 percent less energy as opposed to riding in front with the wind in your face. The teammates do all the grunt work, conserving the quarterback's energy for the end of the race.
The Yellow Jersey competitors rarely finish first in any stage. All they have to do is stay near the front and don't crash. The wild finishes you see on sports highlights are for the cyclists competing for the Green Jersey. The Green Jersey is for sprinters and the winner is determined by a points system. You get the most points for the day by finishing first, fewer points for second and so on. Also in half the stages there is a 1000-meter section called the sprint. On days when the tour is racing on a relatively flat surface, points are awarded for the first person to cross the midrace sprint line, less for the next and... well you get the idea.
Now you're probably asking why the sprinters who finish first every day don't win the Yellow Jersey. Good question. The reason is that not all the stages are on relatively flat surfaces. About seven or eight a year are mountain stages. Sprinters usually don't stand a chance of even competing on those days, so they "take a day off" by riding in the back of the peloton surrounded by their teammates. They have no chance of beating the teams whose quarterback is going after the Polka Dot Jersey which signifies "King of the Hill" or the best mountain rider.
On a good day in the mountains, there are about four or five designated summits. Points are given to the first one over each summit. It's usually a madhouse as the riders maneuver their way through the winding roads, excruciating inclines and thousands of crazed fans that stand and cheer within inches of the cyclists as they reach the peak. The reason the crowds are so huge on the mountain inclines is because you get a nice long look at the cyclists as they slowly muscle their way up the mountain. Ergo, there are no crowds on the other side of the mountain as they descend because if you blink, you can miss them completely as they tear down at speeds sometimes close to 60 miles per hour.
While the Green Jersey competitors take mountain days off, Polka Dot competitors take flat, sprint days off. However Yellow Jersey contenders never take a day off. They don't need to finish at or near the front on mountain stages, but they can't afford to let their competitors get ahead of them on those stages either. This is where the other team members take over. Some "linemen" are good sprinters; some are good mountain climbers although not good enough to compete for a jersey. (If they are good or better than the quarterback, you can bet they'll be looking to switch to another team the following year and run their own team.) The linemen will stay with the quarterback, giving him as little headwind as possible so he can make a run near the top at the day's finish line.
You like contact and blood? It's all over the Tour. Crashes everywhere. All it takes is one guy to accidentally bump into another in the peloton and boom! Twenty or thirty riders go down in a heap of metal and rubber onto the road. Blood everywhere. They crash when contact is made, on sharp curves, on long mountain descents even in the mad rush to the finish line. One poor rider got wiped out last year when a media car swerved to hit him, forcing him off the road, flipping him over and landing in a fence of barbed wire. (Believe it or not, the rider actually finished the race that day. The replay is shown at least once a day)
But the injured riders can't quit unless they've broken some bones and can't pedal a bike. They have to keep racing or they'll fall way behind. Fall too far behind and you're eliminated. There is a doctor in one of the cars that follow the racers and numerous times she has bandaged a bleeding rider's back or arm or sprayed freezing liquid on parts of their bodies to lessen the pain while he continues to race. The rider pedals up to the medical car, holds onto the side as the doctor leans out and attends to his wounds. (This is done while they're going 20 or 30 miles per hour!) After the day's race is done, they get stitched up and race again the next day. (Each team also has a car that caries bicycle technicians who do repairs on bikes in the same manner. They lean out of the cars even further and sometimes need someone else inside the car to hold onto their legs as they fix the bicycles.)
I'm just scratching the surface of the Tour here. The TV commentators Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, Bob Roll and Todd Harris are fantastic. They explain everything that's going on, even pointing out the chateaus, small villages and homemade signs held up by the fans (Phil translates them into English.). Over a million people come out to watch the Tour in person. Almost all of them are taking pictures, cheering or wearing outlandish costumes so the TV cameras will pick the up. (For some unexplainable reason, a lot of guys wear the Borat underwear costume or bunny suits.)
Look, I'm a huge hockey, baseball and college football fan, not just someone who only follows "boutique" sports. There is no sporting event so entertaining, dangerous, exciting and as beautiful as the Tour de France. I never miss the Tour. If you're a sports fan, neither should you. Try it. You'll like it.