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Measuring Tour de France success

TdF2010ThumbJul 8th, 10.  In honour of some NZ media reporting this about Julian Dean today, "He remained well down the field on general classification," I thought I should give a lesson on how the Tour de France works.



Below is an article published last year before the Tour de France.  I was only new to following cycling and as I upskilled I wrote a series of articles so others could learn too.  


It's a pity our main stream media didn't read the article.  As well as several news websites running the story about Dean remaining well down on GC, I was told a news based radio station read out the results this morning and then said something to the effect of, "I'm pretending I have a clue about how this works."  


Not acceptable. This attitude undermines the success of our world class cyclists.


In case you need to know Dean, " ... remained well down the field on general classification in 146th spot, 17 minutes and 32 seconds off the pace," reported,,, from an NZPA article. (Although I note have since updated their article with a reference to this site - that would be great had they given the site address correctly, and linked to us)


Measuring Tour de France success

Yellow jersey, white jersey, polka dots, points, General Classification, what does it all mean?

by Sarah, a non-cyclist wants to help demystify the Tour de France, to help shed some light on the Tour complexities and help those readers who haven't spent every July pouring over the Tour de France to understand more about this fantastic event.


First and foremost the Tour de France is a team event and, just like in rugby or netball, everyone has their pre-assigned roles based on their physique and their skills. You wouldn't find a rugby back in the middle of a scrum, or a netball defender shooting for goals and in cycling you wouldn't find a sprinter attacking in the mountains or a climber contesting a mass finish.


Similarly, not everyone's success can be measured by the same thing even though their overall aim is for the team to win. In cycling it might be one person named as the Tour de France champion, but it's definitely a team win.


Using the other sports' analogy again, you don't look at the scoreboard and tell the front row off for not kicking for more goals, or the netball defender for not shooting nets.  In cycling, there's no point looking to the General Classification to see if someone like Julian Dean is performing well. It's an irrelevant measure.


Who wins the Tour de France?

The overall winner is the individual cyclist with the quickest time after adding up all the rider's times from the 21 stages. The overall winner is the winner of the General Classification, or GC.


The GC is updated after every stage to show who are the current leaders. The leading rider must wear the yellow leader's jersey, or maillot jeune, until another rider takes over the top position.


Competitions within the Tour de France

As well as the GC, there are many other titles to aim for during the Tour de France. Most cyclists dream of winning a stage in the Tour  - crossing the finish line with their arms in the air saluting victory, but besides the Tour title and stage wins, the other competition categories are;
  • Green jersey - "Points leader".  The rider with the highest number of points.  Points are awarded for the first riders across the finish in each stage of the Tour.  Flat sprint stages have higher points awarded to them than climbing stages which is why the leader of the Green jersey is often referred to as the "Sprint leader".  As well as finish line points, most stages have points associated with interim sprints. A rider must finish the Tour de France to win this overall title.
  • White jersey -"Best Young Rider". The rider with the lowest overall time who was born after 1 Jan 1985.
  • Red polka dot jersey - "Best Climber" or "King of the Mountain".  The rider with the highest number of climbing points.  Climbing points are awarded at each mountain and hill pass on a sliding scale relative to the climb difficulty. A rider must finish the Tour de France to win this overall title.
  • Best team - the Team Classification is determined by adding the GC times of each team's top three riders.  The team with the lowest overall time is the Best Team.
  • Most competitive rider - at the end of each stage the Tour Director awards this title to the rider who has made the greatest effort and has demonstrated the best qualities of sportsmanship.

The leader must race in the appropriate leader's jersey until another rider takes over as the category leader.


Why stage placings and GC placings don't necessarily indicate how a rider is performing.

There are lots of examples of how a rider can finish many minutes or perhaps hours behind the leaders in the GC and still have had a fantastic and successful Tour de France. Six examples are looked at below.


Domestiques. The workers. On a hot day a domestique may be required to slow down, wait for the team car, fill his jersey up with water bottles and/or food, then fight his way back through the peloton to pass the bottles back to his team's leader.  He may do this many times during a stage. On a wet day his role may be to take wet weather gear between the team car and the leader.  His goal is to allow the team leader to hold his race position without the normal concerns riders have.


The domestiques play a crucial role in a team and often race many more kilometres than their leaders. They usually finish lower down on the GC as once their duties are done they take time to recover further back in the field. They know they'll be needed again tomorrow. Where they come on the stage and GC is an irrelevant measure of their value.


Leadout riders. Julian Dean is a sprinter, all of New Zealand would love to see him win a stage in the Tour de France but his role coming into the Tour was to help leadout his teammate Tyler Farrar to win the sprints. (For the moment let's ignore the fact Farrar is injured and Dean might be the sprinter for a few more stages at least)


Whether a leadout rider gets 80th, or 8th on a sprint stage is not necessarily an indication of whether he did his role well.


In a typical example, a leadout rider will work with a group of three or four riders who each take a turn at the front later in the race.  Their goal is to get their sprinter close to the finish line without the sprinter exerting too much energy, and to launch him over the line.


They'll give 100% effort out the front for a few hundred metres and as soon as they feel their power fading they pull off for the next rider to continue. That leadout rider will then fade into the background, no doubt swallowed up by the pace of the peloton riders who haven't had to exert so much solo energy. Their job is done. They ride slowly to the finish line and hopefully get to congratulate their sprinter. Their own stage placing is not relevant. Sometime a leadout rider will hold on for a minor placing, like Dean did at the Giro d'Italia, but it's the exception.


Sprinters. As a general rule, sprinters do not climb well. The extra power they need for sprint success usually requires a bigger frame. Climbers are the tiny riders in the peloton.


Sprinters enter the Tour de France to win stages and to contest the Green Jersey. When the mountain stages hit, the sprinters forget their rivalry and work together to get through the mountains, their only concern is riding over the finish line within the time cutoffs set for each stage so they can contest upcoming flat stages. Stage placings on mountain stages do not  matter and overall GC placings are of no consequence to the sprinters. They either win a stage, or they don't.


Breakaway riders. Often a rival from a competing team will attempt to break free ahead of the peloton. Teams will try and send their own rider to the break in order to know what is going on and secondly to work to disrupt the break and slow down progress.


Breakaway riders may be expected to ride solo up to the break, or to stay in a small break where the exertion level is much higher than sitting in a large peloton. These riders are not riding to maximise their own chances of a GC place, although if the break goes free then they get their chance for stage victory. They are working for the sake of their leaders and may suffer the next day due to their efforts.  Whether or note their break succeeded to the line, or was reeled back in, is a good outcome depends on the rider's team goals.


Chase riders. Another role related to breakaway riders is that of chase riders.  To illustrate this point, let's say Cervelo don't want to let a breakaway bunch ride away to the finish line and win the stage. It may be that a rival to Cervelo's team leader is in the break, or perhaps Cervelo wants the chance to set their sprinter up for a stage win. Either way they will set up a chase to bring back the break.  


The Cervelo leader will stay protected in the peloton, away from the wind and benefitting from the massed peloton speed whilst other team riders work at the front of the chase. These riders work much harder than the rest of the peloton and can suffer later in the Tour from these efforts.


Team players. Team strategy often calls for self sacrifice. If a team's first priority is to get their leader to the podium in Paris, the team members may have to sacrifice their own chance of stage glory to protect their leader. Perhaps a sprinter will be forced to use too much energy early in a sprint stage working for his leader, perhaps a climber stays back with his leader to help pull him up a mountain pass rather than go off for a solo victory.


Many riders don't even make it to the finish line in Paris. Even that does not mean they have had an unsuccessful Tour de France. Cycling is a team sport, for most riders you cannot measure individual success by looking at the scoreboard.


So how do you measure success?

To understand how a particular rider is doing in the Tour de France requires an understanding of that rider's role.  


Julian Dean is a lead-out rider. Most times his role is not to win a stage, although Dean is likely to have a few opportunities to go for individual success now his team sprinter is injured.  His goal isn't to win the Tour de France.


Whether Dean is a leadout rider or a sprinter, reporting his position on the General Classification shows ignorance of this sport and undermines the brilliant successes of New Zealand's top cyclists.  Even if all five of New Zealand's pro-tour riders were in this Tour de France, none of them would measure their success by their General Classification ranking - their roles are different.


I'll get off the soapbox now.


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