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Baffled by the Tour de France rules? Read these four points

It is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world but do you know what the jersey colours mean and why riders are not only trying to finish in the fastest time?

Tour de France cyclists pass the Arc de Triomphe Pic: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

This year's Tour de France is under way with cyclists setting off from Bilbao, Spain, on Saturday (July 1).

They arrive in Bayonne on Monday (July 3) and, after a course that takes in the south-west, central France and the French Alps, will finish in Paris on July 23. 

It is one of the most-watched sporting events of the year and attracts more than a billion viewers from around the world.

But following the rules of the race for beginners can be difficult, with riders celebrating being given coloured jerseys, some riders going gung-ho for small sections before dropping back, etc. 

Here we answer four common questions about the race to help first-time watchers get to grips with it. 

Read more: Beer cheat, peeing, Donald Trump: Six facts about the Tour de France

1. What do the different coloured jerseys mean?

There are four different coloured jerseys given out to cyclists for certain accomplishments. 

The four different winners’ jerseys at the Tour de France. Credit: A.S.O./Fabien Boukla

The yellow jersey (maillot jaune)

This jersey is given to the leader of the general classification. This means the cyclist who has the fastest overall time since the start of the race. 

The Tour de France is broken down into 21 stages so the cyclist who completes the first stage the fastest is given the yellow jersey to wear for the second stage. After that, it is given to whoever has the fastest overall time, not necessarily the person who wins the stage. 

For example, a cyclist could come fourth in every stage and still end up winning the Tour de France overall due to having the fastest time. 

The green jersey (maillot vert)

This is also known as the “points classification jersey”. The Tour de France is not only a competition to see who can finish the stages in the fastest time, there is also a secondary element where riders collect points. 

These points are given for finishing the stage quickly, winning sprint sections that take place during the stages and for performing well in mountain sections.

The cyclist who has the most points wears the green jersey. If a cyclist happens to be leading the general classification and the points classification at the same time, they will wear the yellow jersey and the person in second place will wear the green jersey. 

The polka dot jersey (maillot blanc à pois rouges)

This jersey is given to the ‘king of the mountains’, meaning the rider who does the best during the mountain sections. Mountain points vary depending on the difficulty of the climb. We explain later in the article the different categorisation of the mountain sections. 

The white jersey (maillot blanc)

This jersey is awarded for the same reasons as the yellow jersey but only to riders who are 25 years old or younger. 

Slovenian cyclist Tadej Pogačar won both the white jersey and the yellow jersey in 2021. 

Read more: 7 French expressions to talk about the Tour de France

2. How do the teams work?

There are 22 teams in the Tour de France each with eight or nine cyclists. All the riders have different strengths and weaknesses, with some good at flat sprint sections, others good in mountain sections and others all-rounders. 

Each team usually has at least one rider who is their main contender to win the yellow jersey – this cyclist is known as the team’s leader. Some teams have several leaders. 

The other members of the team act as domestiques, these are the riders who support the leader in whatever way they can to help them win the race. This could involve shielding them from the wind, bringing them water or even offering them their bike in case of a mechanical failure. 

Usually the team members take turns to act as domestiques depending on the section of the stage. For example, the leader may help out the team’s strong sprinter if necessary. 

In this way it is a complete team effort to win the race. 

3. How are the climbs classified?

As mentioned above, riders win points for performing well in mountain sections of the race. The harder the section, the more points they can win. 

The difficulty depends on the height of the mountain, the distance of the mountain section, the average slope steepness and certain other factors. There are five grades: four, three, two, one and what is called “hors catégorie” (HC). Four is the easiest and HC is the hardest. 

4. How long do the riders get to finish each stage?

The Tour de France has what is called a “time cut” that applies to every stage. It means that all riders must finish within a certain time after the stage winner. 

The time cut is a percentage of the stage winner’s finishing time, usually somewhere between 15-25%. 

For example, if a time cut is set at 25% and the winning cyclist finishes in two hours, all riders will have to finish in no longer than two hours and 30 minutes or they will be eliminated from the race. 

The time cut is calculated for each stage based on various elements, such as the length and difficulty of the stage. 

In some rare instances riders who are eliminated are allowed to continue the race – for example if they missed the time cut due to technical issues. However, they lose all their points so it is unlikely they will win the green or polka dot jerseys. 

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