A beginner's guide to the Tour de France

Jargon, jerseys and tactics: From bidon to yellow jersey via lanterne rouge, this is Velon's indispensable guide to the Tour de France:

Team Sky's Chris Froome rides a time trial in 2016 (Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty)


French term for water bottle. Frequently cast aside by riders, usually picked up by a grateful fan at roadside.


A rider or group or riders ahead of the main peloton. Many Tour stages follow a familiar pattern, with a spell of tactically significant early attacking. Overall contenders will try not to allow a rival in the day's breakaway, but riders who are no threat in GC (general classification) may be allowed to escape.

Breakaway riders are often from smaller teams with no interest in the yellow jersey: they want to fight for a stage win and, crucially, gain TV exposure for their sponsors. Sometimes, breakaway riders are only interested in the intermediate sprints or KOM points along the route.

From the moment the route is announced every October, riders will size up stage profiles, calculating which suit their abilities and which may see a breakaway succeed. See also: Yellow jersey / General Classification, below.


French for hat - shorthand for 'chapeau bas' meaning ‘hat-tip’, when a rider has performed well. 'Well done,' 'Respect,' that kind of thing. Can be upgraded to ‘grand chapeau’ for particularly impressive cycling feats.

Climber AKA 'grimpeur'

A 'pure' climber is a light rider who targets mountain stages. Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) are two of the most famous current examples, while riders like four-times Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) are equally strong in climbing and time-trialling.

Guillaume Van Keirsbulck with the combativité prize in 2017 (Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty)

Prix de la Combativité

On each stage (excluding time trials) the race jury awards a prize to the most aggressive rider: Le Prix de la Combativité. Not necessarily the stage winner, almost never the overall leader - a one-off prize to a rider that has ‘animated' the race and entertained fans. There is no jersey, but the winner wears a white race number on a red background the day after to signify their prize.


Wind can make an apparently simple stage complicated and dangerous. If a group or an individual attacks in strong winds, it can be impossible for the chasing riders to catch them. Teams often aim to attack in windy parts of the course and try to catch rivals out. (See Echelons, below).

Ian Stannard on water bottle duty for Team Sky at the 2015 Tour de France (Getty Images)


Every Tour de France winner has a team of helpers or domestiques. There is normally one clear leader, for whom the rest of the team works. Domestiques carry water and food to the leader, protect them from wind, ensure they ride in the safest position (towards the front of the peloton) and give them a spare wheel or even their bike, as required. They are also tasked with responding to attacks from rival teams or controlling the time gap between the peloton and the breakaway. For a domestique the most demanding time might come early in the stage, when the DS (see below) tells them to catch a group of escapees.

DS (directeur sportif)

The overall co-ordinator of the team’s sporting efforts. Responsible for team selection, strategy, tactics, rider management, motivation and more.

Echelons at the 2016 Tour (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)


Bike racing is about aerodynamics and nothing demonstrates that more than echelons forming on a windy stage. Strong winds cause riders to fan out across the road, maximising protection from the rider in front - thereby expending less energy. It’s the same principle as geese flying in a V formation. 

Flamme Rouge

The one-kilometre-to-go marker. A significant signal for riders and fans, especially if a breakaway is trying to stay away from the chasing pack. Scene of an unfortunate accident for Mitchelton-SCOTT's Adam Yates at the 2016 Tour.

Flat stage

Never literally flat, but a stage with no categorised climbs that will give a chance for the sprinters - the fastest finishers in the race, like Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and Dylan Groenewegen (Team Jumbo-Visma). Some stages with shorter climbs, categorised or uncategorised, may still end in a bunch sprint.

Michael Matthews dons the green jersey in 2017 (Getty Images)

Green jersey / Points classification

The points classification is the sprinters' prize - even though the current world champion Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe), while not a 'pure' sprinter, won it five years running (2012-2016). Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) won it in 2017. Points are awarded to the top 15 riders on each stage, and points are also won in intermediate sprints.


On mountain stages when lighter riders like Froome and Porte may contest victory, heavier riders are left behind to form the gruppetto. Their task on these days is simply to complete the stage within the time limit, and stay in the overall race. (See also: Time limit, below)

Tour de France Stage 12 profile, 2018

Hors catégorie

Mountain climbs are categorised by difficulty: steepness and length. A category-four climb is the least demanding, through to category one, the hardest. But there is another class of climb: “hors catégorie”, beyond categorisation, meaning the climb is so steep and demanding, it's impossible to categorise. If the riders see “HC” on the stage profile, they know it’s going to hurt. In 2018, for example, Stage 12 on 19 July (above) includes three HC climbs - the Col de la Madeleine, Col de la Croix de Fer and the iconic Alpe d'Huez.

Lanterne Rouge

The last-placed rider in the race, considered an alternative honour.


A bag of food - rice cakes, sandwiches, energy gels and bars - handed out to the riders at feed zones.


The main bunch of riders. Up until last year there were 198 starters, but this season a reduction in team size from nine to eight will see 176 riders on the start line - 22 teams of eight. Constantly shifting and complex, often changing shape and size. Simply put, riding in a bunch saves energy. Velon in-race data consistently shows how much harder riders in the breakaway riders must work.

Lotto Soudal's Thomas de Gendt pulls on the King of the Mountains jersey during the 2016 Tour (Tim de Waele/Getty)

Polka-dot jersey / King of the Mountains prize

The King of the Mountains jersey does exactly what it says on the tin. King of the Mountains points are offered at the top of every categorised climb, with double points on summit finishes.

Each day, the KOM leader wears the polka-dot jersey. The best climber overall after 21 stages wears the polka-dot jersey on the podium in Paris.

Team HTC Columbia formed one of the most famous and successful lead-out trains for Mark Cavendish, several seasons ago (Getty Images)

Lead-out train

The collective term for the team of helpers aiming to set up their sprinter for a stage win. It’s a highly technical and physically draining job: the aim is to ‘drop off’ your team’s sprinter in the optimal position on the final straight to win the stage.

This means fighting for the best position on the road, and also having detailed information about the course - corners, roundabouts and so on. Flat stages often contrast between several hours of relatively serene racing, before the sprinters’ teams start to battle for position in the closing kilometres.

Traditionally sprinters share their prize money among team-mates so there’s something in it for everyone. The stakes are high for the teams, so the best lead-out riders are very well paid. The Tour de France traditionally finishes with a sprint stage on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Neutralised start

Each road stage has a short ‘neutralised’ zone which the riders roll through slowly before the race director Christian Prudhomme waves his flag from the race car, and the fun begins. It’s safer than a standing start - and also offers fans in the start town a good chance to see the riders up close.


The French term for the route. Parcours specifically means the unique challenges faced by the riders on a stage and across the three-week race: all Tours de France emphasise mountains but in some there are more individual time trial kilometres, or a team time trial. Race organisers devise a route which challenges the GC contenders, and provides opportunity for sprinters, time-triallists and climbers.

A bidon is thrown from the speeding peloton


A puncheur is a powerfully-built rider who can attack and win on short, steep climbs, while also flourishing in faster sprints. A rider capable of overpowering rivals with huge short efforts, even at the end of a long day of racing. Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck - Quick-Step), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe) are all puncheurs.


A rouleur is a strong all-rounder, capable of prospering on all kinds of terrain. Flat, undulating, hilly and even mountainous.


The French word for masseur - a key member of staff on every cycling team, along with the chef. Try cycling 3,500km and see how your legs feel. Tour de France riders have daily post-stage massages to aid recovery ahead of the next day’s racing.

The sprinters battle for a stage Tour de France (Getty Images)


Unlike their GC counterparts, sprinters don't care about overall time. They aim to win individual stages with the help of the domestiques. Their team will help them into the best possible position from which to launch their sprint for the line. Bunch sprints are always hectic, with lots of riders fighting for space on the road. But only a few riders in the peloton can produce the short burst of speed necessary to win a sprint stage.

The best pure sprinters in the world at the moment are the likes of Elia Viviani (Deceuninck - Quick-Step), Dylan Groenewegen (Team Jumbo-Visma), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates). “Puncheurs” like Peter Sagan (BORA-hansgrohe) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) can also win sprint stages.

Tête de la Course 

Literal translation - “head of the race” - the front of the race on any given stage. It's a much-used TV graphic to help viewers understand the race situation when there are multiple groups of riders on the road.

Time limit

All riders must finish every stage within a certain percentage of the winner’s time. If not, they face being eliminated from the race. The time limit varies from stage-to-stage depending on the parcours and exceptions are sometimes made if a large group of riders has missed the cut.

BMC Racing Team's Richie Porte rides an individual time trial

Time trial

Evocatively known as a ‘Race of Truth’, a time trial is simple. Each rider races from Point A to Point B. Time trials can be raced on any terrain - flat, undulating, mountainous - but are never as long as road stages. Time-trial specialists include world champion Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb), Rohan Dennis (Team Bahrain Merida) and Tony Martin (Team Jumbo Visma).

White jersey / Best Young Rider (maillot blanc)

A separate competition to recognise the best young talent. The white jersey is awarded after each stage to the highest-placed young rider (Under-25 in this calendar year) in GC.

Alberto Contador in yellow (Getty Images)

Yellow jersey / General Classification (maillot jaune)

The individual rider who finishes in the fastest overall time becomes Tour de France champion. The fight for the overall race is known as the ‘general classification’, or GC. A Grand Tour winner must prove themselves in different disciplines: climbing and time-trialling are the most important. 

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