A Cultural History of the Tour de France

School of Continuing Studies,

University of Toronto

May 2003

Please note that this course will be offered again from May 10, 2004 - June 14th, 2004. For registration information visit the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.

Course Description:

France’s national obsession for over 100 years has been the celebrated cycling tournament called the Tour de France. This lecture survey course examines the history of the world’s toughest endurance race through the twin lenses of French culture and athletic competition.

Learner Outcomes:

Knowledge of the logistics of the race, heroes of the tour, classic races, innovation and the role of technology in cycling, cheating and sports ethics.


John Koch

Margot Irvine

Telephone (after 8 pm is best): (416) 239-7181

Our class will be held on Monday evenings, May 10 to June 14, from 6:30-8:30 in the Bahen Centre at 40 St. George Street - Room 3004. Only validly registered students may attend the lectures.

On this page you will find:

Suggested Readings and Links

A Tour de France Glossary

Some Frequently Asked Questions: The Race in a Nutshell

A Tentative Course Outline

Please check back as we will be adding to this page over the duration of the course.

Suggested Readings and Links

General Information about the Tour and Tour History

www.letour.fr – The official website of Le Tour de France. Follow links to race rules and statistics. One link takes you to archived copies of the Tour’s official sites since 1995. The 1999 site in particular includes the complete rule book for the Tour that year. The rules are substantially the same today.

http://homepage.ntlworld.com/veloarchive/ - A compilation of the winners of each stage and full tour from 1903 to 1952 together with a brief narrative about each year’s Tour. Also includes articles and interviews about some of the most interesting Tours and riders.

www.frankieandreu.com – follow links to his race diaries. Frankie Andreu is an American who completed 9 tours, most recently in 2000 riding as road captain for Lance Armstrong’s USPS team. In his race diaries, Andreau writes informative and sophisticated analyses of each tour stage interspersed with interesting anecdotes about life of a rider in the Tour.

• The following sites include daily news from the world of professional cycling:

• There are many good books written on the history of the Tour. Some publishers put out a new book each year on that year’s tour (the most widely available in Canada are from Velo Press in Boulder, Colorado). Some of the more interesting histories include:

Racing and Tactics

• There is not very much good information on cycling tactics available on the web. There is some good race analysis at www.frankieandreau.com – follow links to race diaries. Other than that, some information can be gleaned from:


www.bicyclesports.com – a commercial site operated by John Cobb, the designer and tester of much of the innovative aerodynamic equipment used by Lance Armstrong in the Tour. Many interesting essays on wind tunnel testing of various pieces of equipment and rider positions.

www.cervelo.com – a commercial site with lots of historical and up to the minute information on the aerodynamics and technology of bicycles by the Canadian company that supplies the bikes to the CSC Team. Check out in particular the “History” and the “Tech Articles” sections.

www.analyticcycling.com – How much faster would you climb the Alpe d’Huez if you lost another 5 kg? What affect would using a low spoke count front wheel have on your time in the prologue? How many more watts would Jan Ulrich have to generate that Lance to drop Lance on Mont Ventoux?

www.cyclepublishing.com – See the note on Van der Plas Publishing, above.

www.harriscyclery.com – The legendary Sheldon Brown fixes your old bike – Not really a Tour site but you can’t have a list of cycling links and leave out Sheldon Brown.

• Interesting books include:

Drugs and Cheating

www.wada-ama.org – The website of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Sets out the Rules with respect to performance enhancing substances and methods.

www.uci.ch – The website of the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of competitive cycling. The site includes the complete rules governing all aspects of road racing, including the rules that apply to the Tour for everything from when and why riders can be penalized through how long stages can be to how many crowd control barriers have to be used.

http://www.cyclingnews.com/riders/2004/interviews/?id=jesus_manzano04 - Jesus Manzano's Story

http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/chain.shtml - An extract from the most infamous book about doping in the Tour by the soigneur at the center of the 1998 Festina scandal. For a variety of accounts of the events of 1998, see:

• For some other accounts of cheating and doping in the Tour and cycling in general, see:

Physiology and Training

• There are countless organizations and coaches dispensing training advice over the internet. Most that are any good, however, charge a fee and offer personalized training programs.

• The academic literature on cycling physiology and training is vast and very technical. There are, however, many good books on the subject written in an approachable style including:

A Tour de France Glossary


The group of stragglers bringing up the rear on a climbing stage. Sometimes also referred to by the Italian “Grupetto” and often heard shouting “Piano” at the more aggressive of its members.


A mountain in the Alps. Used to identify climbs that end on or at the top of a mountain in the Alps (e.g. l’Alpe D’Huez). Cf. “Col”, “Mont”.


The guy who sits on the pinion seat of a motorcycle with a small chalkboard on which he gives information to the riders in a breakaway about the time gap to the chasers.


The finish line.

Avoir des fourmis dans les jambes

Literally, to have ants in the legs. Figuratively, to be anxious to get into a breakaway because a rider is feeling particularly strong.

Benjamin du tour

The youngest rider in the race.


A water bottle. Fist fights are known to have broken out among spectators over water bottles that riders have discarded.

Caravane Publicitaire

The real reason many French attend the Tour. A parade of gaudy commercial floats staffed by attractive young people with bleached teeth and wide smiles who throw trinkets and souvenirs to the crowds. The Caravane precedes the riders by about 90 minutes and can take as long as an hour to pass. Promotional fees paid by the sponsors of Caravane vehicles are the primary source of revenue for the Tour organizers. In 2002, a young child was struck and killed by one of the vehicles in the Caravane when he ran into the road to gather up some trinkets.


Eddy Merckx.


Literally, the “hunters”, but usually English commentators use the more prosaic “chasers” to refer to the riders in pursuit of a breakaway.


Teammates. People who usually work together for the good of the team and the team leader (but see Hinault and Lemond – 1986).


A mountain pass. Used to identify climbs that can be approached from more than one direction and that are frequently used in the middle of a stage (e.g. Col du Galibier). cf. “Alpe”, “Mont”.

Contre la montre

A “time-trial”. A race where each rider rides alone and is timed individually. A Team Time Trial is similar except all members of a team ride together against the clock.


A rider. The same word the French use for a runner.

La course en tête

To lead the Tour from start to finish. The ultimate domination of the Tour (see Jacques Anquetil – 1961).

Classement générale

The “General Classification” – the overall standings in the race.


The defining moment of many Tour stages – a flat tire.

En danseuse

The poetic French way of saying that a rider is climbing while standing up, rather than seated on the saddle.


To be “dropped” - left behind by the stronger riders. Coincidentally, the same word the French use for hanging up the telephone.

Directeur sportif

The head coach / general manager of a cycling team. Often spotted driving the team car behind, around and occasionally over the riders while simultaneously barking orders over a two way radio, watching the race on an in-car television, and passing water bottles out the window to the team’s domestiques.


Literally, a domestic servant. Originally used derisively to refer to a rider who rode in the service of another rather than attempting to win the race for himself. In 1911, Henri Desgrange first used the term to describe Maurice Brocco, who was later disqualified for selling his services to other racers. More on this in class. No team today can expect its leader to contend in the Tour without a number of dedicated domestiques.


To pass another rider.


One of many derisive terms used to describe a rider that never takes a turn at the front, but always allows himself to be pulled along by the other riders. cf. “suceur de roue”.


An “escape” or “breakaway” – a rider or small group of riders that manages to get away from the peloton.


A stage of the Tour.

Flamme rouge

The red pennant that hangs over the road to indicate one kilometre to l’arrivée.

Géant de Provence

Mont Ventoux – A big mountain in the middle of nowhere in Provence with very little vegetation and consistently very high winds. Tom Simpson died on Mont Ventoux. More on this in class.


A climber – one of the skinny guys who actually looks forward to the mountain stages.


To drop or let go. See Décrocher.

Lanterne Rouge

The rider in last place on the Classment Generale. The lanterne rouge is often rewarded with some of the largest appearance fees at the various post-tour criterium races.

Maillot à pois

Literally the jersey of peas / polka dots. A White jersey with red polka dots worn by the leader of the “King of the Mountains” competition.

Maillot jaune

The yellow jersey – worn by the leader of the Classment Generale.

Maillot vert

The green jersey – worn by the leader of the points competition.


An Alpe that is not in the Alps.


A shoulder bag containing food and drinks for the riders that is handed to the riders as they pass through the zone de ravitaillement. Also the French word for bagpipes. More on this in class.


What Fausto Coppi had that Gino Bartali did not – and what Hugo Koblet had more of than anyone, except maybe Mario Cippolini. More on this in class.


Literally, the “boss”. The rider who has earned the respect of the peloton to the extent that he need only express his displeasure and thereby enforces the unwritten rules of the race (e.g. Merckx, Hinault, Armstrong). More on this in class.


Originally, a military term meaning a “platoon”. Used to refer to the largest pack of riders in the race.


In the early years of the Tour, riders could ride in one of two classifications. Riders of “Plombé” bikes were permitted to exchange parts as they wore out or broke. Contrast with “Poinçonné”.


See “Plombé”. Riders of “sealed” bikes were required to complete the race on the same equipment they started with.


Another word for “chasseurs”.


Euphemism for performance enhancing drugs.

Ravitaillement, Zone de

A designated section of the race where riders pick up musettes from the soigneurs. The end of the zone de ravitaillement is a good place for spectators to pick up discarded water bottles and musette bags.


Literally, a tow truck. Used to refer to a rider who rides in the front to protect his team mates from the wind.

Le sprint

A mad dash for the finish line or some other designated point on the stage. Some of the most exciting moments of the Tour are the mass sprints that conclude many of the flatter stages in the first week of the Tour.


A rider who specializes in the big finish but frequently drops out of the race when the mountains arrive. See also “Dossard”, “Suceur de roue”.


A team staff member whose job is to take care of the physical needs of the riders – from distributing musettes, to giving massages, to assisting with the rider’s “préparations”. Willy Voet was a soigneur. More on this in class.

Suceur de roue

Literally, a “wheel sucker”. See “Dossard”.

Tête de la course

The head of the race – in the lead.


The winner.


A racing bike. Never call a vélo a “bicyclette”. Other popular terms are “biclard”, “bécane”, “petite reine”.


A switchback or hairpin turn on a mountain road. There are 21 of them on the Alpe d’Huez.

Voiture balai

The most unhappy place on the tour. The broom wagon. A van that follow the race picking up the riders who have abandoned or have fallen so far back as to be unable to finish within the time limit for the stage.

Please send us an email if you have any suggestions for additional terms.

© 2003, 2004 John Koch

Some Frequently Asked Questions: The Race in a Nutshell

We are frequently asked how the Tour de France works – what the rules are – how the standings get determined. In our course, we devote the first week to explaining the intricacies of the rules of the race. For those who can’t wait until the course is offered again, or who cannot make the commute to Toronto, here is a brief overview of how the various competitions that make up the Tour de France work.

The TDF is a 3-week bicycle race each year in July typically around the perimeter of France. With the exception of a couple of rest or transfer days, races (referred to as “stages”) are held each day over the three weeks. A win by a rider in any particular stage is usually a highlight of that rider's year, if not his career. In addition to the daily stages, there are a number of competitions that are contested over the three weeks of the Tour but the most significant is that of the overall winner of the “General Classification”. The winner of the GC is the rider with the lowest cumulative time for completing all of the stages.

Types of Stages

Each racing day, the riders race one of the following types of race:

• A Mass Start race – most of the stages of the Tour are mass start races. The riders all start off together to cover a set route from one town to another. The stages in the first week to 10 days of the Tour are normally relatively flat. Later in the Tour, stages will involve riding up and down mountain passes. The winner of the stage is the first rider across the finish line.

• An Individual time Trial – Each year the Tour will include about 3 stages that are run as individual time trials. In an ITT, the riders start out one at a time at a set interval. Each rider is timed separately from the moment he is scheduled to start until he crosses the finish line. The rider with the lowest time for the day is the winner of the stage. In 2004, the first long ITT will be run very late in the race on a course up the Alpe d'Huez on stage 16.

• A Team Time Trial – The TDF usually includes a Team Time Trial stage. A TTT is like an ITT except that in a TTT, all members of a team start off together. If all goes well, the team rides together over the whole course and all members of the team are credited with the same time as that of the 5th team member to cross the finish line. Riders who cannot keep up with their team-mates, however, are on their own and will be timed individually. In a controversial decision, the Tour organizers have decreed that in 2004 no rider on a team that finishes within the time limit on the TTT stage will lise more than 2.5 minutes on the General Classification regardless of how far back the team finishes from the winning team.

Main Competitions

There are a number of official and unofficial competitions that are contested in the Tour. The key competitions are:

• The General Classification – The winner of the General Classification is the rider with the lowest cumulative time over the entire race. Since 1919, the leader of the GC at the end of the previous stage wears a yellow jersey on the following day’s stage. Standings in the GC are reported with the total time of the leader and the number of minutes and seconds slower each of the other riders is than the leader. The standings for the GC are subject to two adjustments. First, riders can earn “bonus” seconds (more accurately, deductions from their cumulative time) by winning or placing highly in a mass start stage (as much as 20 seconds off for winning one of the flat stages in the first week) or by being one of the first 3 riders across pre-determined points on the course called “intermediate sprints”. The second adjustment is that, for reasons of safety, all riders who cross the finish line in a group are credited with the same time, even if it takes the group a number of seconds to get across the line. Also, if there is a crash within 1 km of the finish (as in Stage 1 of last year’s tour in which Tyler Hamilton broke his collarbone), all riders in the group that crashed who eventually cross the finish line are credited with the same time as the rest of the group. The combination of bonuses and “same time” finishes means that aggressive riders who make long break-aways (and thereby get the intermediate sprint bonuses) and strong sprinters (who typically get the stage winner’s bonuses) fight it out for the yellow jersey early on – and the gap between first place on the GC and 100th place is measured in a handful of seconds. Once the race hits the mountains (or a large break-away succeeds – as in the stage to Pontalier in 2001), gaps of many minutes open up in the GC and the tight fights for a 2 second bonus in the first few stages are soon meaningless.

• The Points Competition – In addition to the GC, there are a number of other competions within the TDF. After the GC, the next most important is the points competition. Riders earn points based on the order of finish in each stage. For example, the winner of a mass start stage earns up to 35 points with lesser points awarded to finishers down to 20th place. In addition, a handful of points are also awarded at each of the intermediate sprints. The leader in the points competition wears a green jersey. In each of the last 3 years, the final winner of the green jersey has not been decided until the very last stage finish at the end of the Tour.

• The King of the Mountains competition – The next most important competition is the climbers’ points or “King of the Mountains” competition. Over the course of 3 weeks, the Tour goes over a number of mountains and mountain passes. Key stages finish at summits in the Pyrenees or the Alps. Each of the major climbs in the Tour is categorized based on its level of difficulty from a relatively painless category 4 up to long, steep category 1. The nastiest climbs of all, like the Galibier, Mont Ventoux, the Tourmalet and the Alpe d’ Huez, are classed as “hors categorie” or “outside of the classification”. Points are awarded to the first riders over the top of each climb – the tougher the climb, the more the points. The leader in the KOM competition wears a white jersey with large red polka-dots.

• Other Competitions – Prizes are also available for the leaders of the Team Competiton – a separate GC based on the total time of the first three riders on each team (exclusive of bonuses) on each stage. The leader of the Best Young Rider competiton (the highest placed GC rider under the age of 25) wears a White Jersey. A purely subjective assessment by the race officials determines who has the honour of wearing a red race number as the leader in the Most Aggressive Rider competition – awarded to the most stubborn of the break-away specialists. There is also the unofficial “competition” not to be the Lanterne Rouge – the rider in last place on the GC.

Tentative Course Outline

Week 1 May 10

Introduction to the Course

The official and unofficial rules of the Tour de France

The spectator's experience of the Tour

The beginnings of the Tour

Week 2 May 17

Classic Races

Early heroes of the Tour

Week 3 May 31 Ethics, Drugs and Cheating
Week 4 June 7 Technology and Aerodynamics
Week 5 June 14

Recent heroes of the Tour

The Tour as a cultural event, in film, art, literature and music