A beginner's guide to the Tour de France

Jerseys, jargon and tactics: get the lowdown on the terminology and traditions of the greatest bike race on earth

A Team Sky (now Team INEOS) domestique carries water bottles for team-mates (Getty Images)

A Team Sky (now Team INEOS) domestique carries water bottles for team-mates (Getty Images)


French for water bottle. The 176 riders in the race get through a lot of these across the three weeks …


Many stages follow a familiar pattern: the peloton departs together, before an early spell of attacking when individuals and small groups of riders try to break away from the bunch.

This is a highly tactical part of the race: GC contenders don’t want to allow a GC threat in the break, for fear of losing time. If their DS doesn’t like the look of a breakaway, a team will be instructed to chase it down. From the moment the route is announced every October, riders will be sizing up the stage profiles, calculating which stages may suit their abilities. 

Breakaways often include riders from smaller teams who have no ambition in the overall race: they are motivated to get in breakaways for a prestigious individual stage win, and to gain TV time for their sponsors. Sometimes the battle to be in the breakaway can last for hours.


French for hat - shorthand for ‘hat-tip’, for when a rider has performed well. “Well done,”, “Respect,” that sort of thing.


High winds can make a simple stage extremely complex, and dangerous for the overall contenders. If a group or individual attacks in strong winds it can be impossible for the chasing riders to bring them back. Teams will often aim to attack in windy parts of the course.


For every Tour de France winner there is a team of domestiques. Each team selects eight riders, normally with one clear leader.

Domestiques carry water and food to their leader, protect them from riding in the wind, ensure they ride in the safest position (generally towards the front of the peloton) and give them a spare wheel or even their bike when required.

Chris Juul-Jensen takes a bottle from a Mitchelton-SCOTT directeur sportif

Chris Juul-Jensen takes a bottle from a Mitchelton-SCOTT directeur sportif

DS - directeur sportif

The co-ordinator of the team’s sporting efforts. Responsible for team selection, strategy, tactics, rider-management, motivation and more. Often found shouting into a radio in the team car.

Hors category

Tour de France mountain climbs are categorised by difficulty - steepness and length. A category-four climb is the easiest, through to category-one, the hardest. There is however another class of climb: “hors category” - beyond categorisation - meaning the climb is so steep, long and hard, that the people trying to categorise it have given up and gone home. If the riders see “HC” on the stage profile, they know it’s going to hurt.

Green jersey / Points classification (maillot vert)

The points classification at any Grand Tour is won by a sprinter or by a fast-finishing puncheur. Points are awarded for high placings on stages, and there are also intermediate sprints in many stages where more points can be won. Each intermediate sprint is another ‘race within the race’ - a designated point on the route where points are awarded for the first, second and third riders across the line.


A group of riders that has been dropped (left behind) by the riders at the front of the race who are contesting the stage win. On the mountain stages, when climbers Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana often contest victory, heavier sprinters have no hope of keeping up. Their task on these days is simply to complete the stage within the time limit, thus staying in the overall race.


A bag of food handed out to the riders at the feed zones.


The main bunch of riders. Constantly shifting and complex, and often changing shape and size. Riding in a bunch saves energy - that’s why they do it.

Thomas de Gendt pulls on the KOM jersey (Getty Images)

Thomas de Gendt pulls on the KOM jersey (Getty Images)

Polka-dot jersey / King of the Mountains classification

The King of the Mountains jersey does exactly what it says on the tin. KOM points are offered at the top of every categorised climb and the rider with most climbing points wears the polka-dot jersey on the podium in Paris.

White jersey / Best Young Rider (maillot blanc)

Another separate competition to recognise the best young talent. The white jersey is awarded at the end of every stage to the highest-placed young rider (under-24) in the overall race.

Tête de la Course 

Literal translation - “head of the race” - the front of the race. A much-used TV graphic used to tell viewers the race situation, when there are different 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.

Peter Sagan celebrates with the ‘Combativity Prize’ at the 2016 Tour de France (Getty Images)

Peter Sagan celebrates with the ‘Combativity Prize’ at the 2016 Tour de France (Getty Images)

Le Prix de la combativité

On each stage of the race, excluding time trials, the Tour de France race jury award a prize to the most aggressive rider on each stage. Not necessarily the stage winner, and almost never the overall race leader - this is a one-off prize to the rider that has done their best to ‘animate the race’ and entertain the fans. There is no jersey, but the day after winning, the rider in question has a white race number on a red background.

Chris Froome rides a time trial in 2016 (Getty Images)

Chris Froome rides a time trial in 2016 (Getty Images)

Individual time trial

Evocatively known as the ‘Race of Truth’, a time trial could not be more simple. Each individual rider must race from Point A to Point B in the shortest time possible. Time trials can be raced on any terrain - flat, undulating, mountainous - but are never as long as road stages. Time-trial specialists include Tony Martin (Team Katusha-Alpecin), Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing Team) Alex Dowsett (Movistar Team) and the recently retired Fabian Cancellara. The 2017 Giro d’Italia champion Tom Dumoulin began life as a time trial specialist. Individual time trials at the 2017 Tour de France come on Stage 1 in Dusseldorf (14km) and in Marseille on Stage 20 (22.5km). Both will be crucial, but if the time gaps are small come Stage 20 in Marseille, the race will be won and lost in that 22.5km journey which includes one small uncategorised climb cresting at 116m.

Flamme Rouge

The one-kilometre-to-go marker - an inflatable arch over the road that tells the riders they are entering the final kilometre of the stage.

A sprint finish (Getty Images)

A sprint finish (Getty Images)


Unlike their GC counterparts, sprinters are entirely unconcerned with their overall time across the three-week race. They aim to 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 lot of riders fighting for space on the road. But only a few riders in the peloton are fast enough to win a sprint stage. The best pure sprinters in the world at the moment are the likes of Marcel Kittel and Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), Caleb Ewan (ORICA-SCOTT) and Mark Cavendish (Team Dimension Data). “Puncheurs” like Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) are also capable of winning these stages.

Lanterne Rouge

The last-placed rider in the race.

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’ their team’s sprinter in the optimal position to win the race.

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 very often contrast between several hours of relatively serene racing in the main peloton, before the sprinters’ teams start to battle for position - and the eventual win - in the closing kilometres.

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


A puncheur is traditionally a powerfully-built rider who can attacking and winning on short, steep climbs, while also winning sprints. Not a rider who will flourish on a pure mountain stage - but one capable of over-powering rivals with huge short efforts, even at the end of a long race sustained high-paced riding. Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and current world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) all come under the puncheur category.

Neutralised start

Each road stage has a short ‘neutralised’ zone which the riders roll through slowly before the race director waves his flag from the race car, and the real fun begins. It’s a safer way to start the race that a standing start - and also gives fans in the start town or city more of a chance to see the riders up close.


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


The French term for the course. Parcour 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 years there are more individual time trial kilometres, or a team time trial. Race organisers invest a huge amount of time in devising a route which challenges the GC contenders, and provides opportunity for sprinters, time-triallists and climbers.

Echelons at the Tour de France (Getty Images)

Echelons at the Tour de France (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 for efficiency. Geese on bikes, to paraphrase Alan Partridge. 


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

Last year’s champion Geraint Thomas leads the way in yellow on the final stage (Getty Images)

Last year’s champion Geraint Thomas leads the way in yellow on the final stage (Getty Images)

Yellow jersey / General Classification (maillot jaune)

The rider who finishes the three-week course in the fastest time becomes Tour de France champion. The fight for the overall race is called the ‘general classification’, or GC for short. A Grand Tour winner must prove themselves over different disciplines, with climbing and time-trialling ability the most significant elements at the Tour.