Tour de France: Time Trials, Mountains Stages, Prologues, and More

Despite its century steeped in tradition, one great appeal of the Tour de France is its flexibility. Organizers arrange the course as they choose, but always with a plan to include a balance of most of the different types of races or all of them. And each year, organizers spice up the course with something new, like successive mountaintop finishes or unique starting cities, like the 1998 start in Dublin, Ireland.

Tour organizers mix and match different types of races into the Tour:

  • A Prologue (time trial): In most recent years, the Tour has started with a short individual race called a Prologue. Winners of the brief event (it's always shorter than eight kilometers) claim race leadership for the first official opening stage the following day.
  • Flat and rolling stages: Flat and rolling stages across the French countryside often comprise the first week.
  • Mountain stages: Strenuous mountain stages high into the sometimes snow-capped peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees are held in the second week and into the third week.
  • Individual time trials: Individual time trials, in which cyclists pedal solo and are timed against the clock, are interspersed strategically throughout the race.
  • Team time trials: Team time trials — that is, each team riding together individually against the clock — aren't held every year, but are added some years for variety.

Each is explained in more detail in the following sections.

Prologues and high speeds

As a ceremonial pre-race, Prologues provide a quick, exciting Tour start. Individual time trials less than 8 kilometers (5 miles) in length, Prologues comprise a few minutes of individual, high-speed pedaling for every cyclist in the field. The race's winner wears the leader's yellow jersey for the first official stage held the following day.

Prologues aren't held every year, but when contested, the short distance gives fans immediate knowledge of just how fast cyclists can pedal. Prologues also provide the first look at the condition or lack of condition of overall title favorites, and showcase the most technological advances in bikes, wheels, helmets, clothing, and so on.

In the 2004 Tour, young Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara surprised the favorites, including Lance Armstrong. Riding for the Italian team Fassa Bortolo, Cancellara claimed the Prologue in 6 minutes and 51 seconds — an average speed of 53.560 kilometers per hour (33.22 mph). As an omen for what was pending in the rest of the race, Cancellara's effort was the third-fastest Prologue in race history and 2 seconds faster than the effort of runner-up Armstrong.

Flat and rolling stages

For the first week of the race, the course usually offers long, flat stretches that are gobbled up by the peloton. Stages may include some brief, low-graded climbs, but in general, teams try to get their sprinters in position for furiously quick dashes to finish lines.

Despite the less technical nature of the Tour's early stages, the week can be dangerous. Riders are nervous when the Tour begins, and it's not uncommon for the entire peloton (pack of riders) to ride en masse into finishing towns. Race organizers utilize as much of the finishing cities' geography as possible to appeal to crowds and to capitalize on sponsorship opportunities. As such, narrow, tight turns are common in the waning miles of flat stages, and one false move in the group when it's moving at high speed can result in disastrous crashes.

The first week of racing in the Tour can also provide some of the most scenic and panoramic views of the race. Because early stages encompass long stretches of flat terrain, France's vast vineyards and miles of sunflowers are often omnipresent. It's these scenarios — large groups of cyclists moving across the country together with postcard perfect backdrops — that provide travel brochure images for Tour organizers.

Making the grade: Mountain stages

Mountains, with their snow-capped peaks, thin air, winding and steep climbs, and harrowing and narrow descents, define the Tour de France. Some Tour routes in mountains are as famous as the race itself. And it's the strength and talent of some cyclists to get to the top of mountains swiftly that separates them from the rest of the field.

Like all the stages, mountain stages included in the Tour change each year, depending upon how race organizers coordinate the route. The course logically encompasses departure and arrival cities and at least a few of the numerous famous peaks of the French Alps and Pyrenees.

Mountain stages include climbs categorized by number, ranging from 4 (easiest) to 1 (hardest). The most difficult climbs are so steep, they're beyond categorizing, or hors categorie.

Categorizing climbs is objective and subjective. The length of the climb, the difference in altitude from the bottom to the top, its average grade and steepest grade, and where the climb is positioned in the stage are all important factors. The elevation of the climb's summit and the width and condition of the road are also contributing factors.

Certain general guidelines dictate how climbs are categorized, but race directors in different races rate climbs differently. Even year to year in the Tour de France, discrepancies occur.

In general terms, Category 4 climbs are short and easy. Category 3 climbs last approximately 5 kilometers (3.1 miles), have an average grade of 5 percent, and ascend 150 meters (500 feet). Category 2 climbs are the same length or longer at an 8 percent grade and ascend 500 meters (1,600 feet). Category 1 climbs last 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) with an average 6 percent grade and ascend 1,500 meters. Beyond category climbs include an altitude difference of at least 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) from start to finish and have an average grade of at least 7 percent.

A 1 percent grade means a road ascends 1 meter (3.28 feet) for every 100 meters (328 feet) it advances.

Individual time trials

More than any other Tour de France race, time trials allow the most riders to showcase their strengths. Cyclists compete individually and against only one competitor — the timing clock. Unlike road racing's team strategy, drafting (riding close behind another rider so as to cut down on the effects of wind) and the flow of the peloton, success in an individual time trial is entirely a solo accomplishment. Every split seconds counts. Riders' aerodynamics matched with their physical skills add up to a simple equation. The fastest man on a bike on any given day wins.

Course distances and routes vary greatly, but time trial routes are generally around 50 kilometers (31.2 miles) and encompass hilly, flat, undulating, and curved road sections. Riders negotiate the course as fast as possible while keeping an appropriate pace and utilizing superior bike-handling skills.

A successful time trialist is not unlike an endurance runner or an ultradistance swimmer. In some ways, time trials are cyclists' marathons. Start a time trial too fast and there's little hope for maintaining a proper steady pace for the duration of the stage. Start too slow in a time trial and a rider may never find the proper rhythm. Unlike endurance sports where certain athletes' body types are conducive to success, great individual time trial riders come in all shapes and sizes.

Race organizers can adjust starting time gaps between riders, but most time trials begin with riders leaving a starting ramp 2 minutes apart. Cyclists compete in the reverse order of their position in the General Classification (the current standings). If a faster rider is about to overtake a slower rider, he must pass while leaving at least a 2-meter distance to prevent drafting, which is illegal only at this point in the race. A passed slower rider then must ride at least 25 meters behind to prevent him from getting the drafting benefits of a slipstream from the leading rider.

A team vehicle carrying spare bikes and wheels must follow every rider in an individual time trial. The vehicle must remain about 10 meters behind the rider, and it can't pull even with its riders at anytime during the stage. Any information exchange between a cyclist and his team vehicle must occur from behind and at least from a 10-meter distance. A vehicle can be positioned between two riders if there's at least 50 meters between riders.

Team time trials

Team time trials seem like oxymorons. Individual time trials test riders' solo strengths; Team time trials bring team strategy back into the race equation. Often cited as the most photogenic cycling discipline, each team's riders ride together, beginning 5 minutes apart. They pedal in a tightly packed, single- or double-file procession.

Cyclists rotate in and out of the front of the group to take advantage of opportunities to draft. Each rider alternately blocks the wind for teammates and then returns into the team formation to conserve energy. A rider may take a turn at the front of his group for 20 seconds and then fall back into the mix of his teammates. Like fast-moving, human-powered, aerodynamic trains, teams advance around corners, over railroad tracks and undulations, and through roadside villages. Visually, the swift packs moving in unison provide excitement for spectators and delightful opportunities for race photographers' keen eyes.

Despite their intriguing nature, team time trials present unique difficulties. If a rider just slightly falls out of rotation, he can initiate a sudden and disastrous crash involving his entire team. If a rider can't keep the same pace as his teammates, he quickly falls off the back of the team and diminishes his team's collective strength.

While important, team time trials are not often held during the long racing season. Teams rarely have opportunities to practice, but done properly, a team time trial takes precise cooperation and coordination among team members. Teams must find an ideal pace despite riders' varying skills. When a team in a team time trial accomplishes its goal, synergy is defined.

Teams must start a team time trial with all their riders. Teams use different strategies. Some squads hope to finish with all riders together and rotate positions until every rider is close to the finish. Other teams have designated strong riders stay at the front for longer durations, only to purposely fall off pace near the conclusion. All teams must finish with at least five riders to get an official time. The time of the fifth rider crossing the line determines the team's finishing time.

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