How To Watch The Tour De France Casual observers of the Tour de France can get lost in the green, yellow and polka dot jerseys, the mountain runs and flat sprints, and the team dynamics. And this year -- is Lance Armstrong really out of contention? Loren Mooney of Bicycling Magazine demystifies the race.
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How To Watch The Tour De France

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How To Watch The Tour De France

How To Watch The Tour De France

How To Watch The Tour De France

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Lance Armstrong, at center, riding with teammates on Monday, July 12, 2010, a rest day for the Tour de France. Bas Czerwinski/AP hide caption

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Bas Czerwinski/AP

Lance Armstrong, at center, riding with teammates on Monday, July 12, 2010, a rest day for the Tour de France.

Bas Czerwinski/AP

The Tour de France is one of the largest spectator sports in the world. For three weeks each July, the top cyclists from around the globe race up to 141 miles a day on narrow courses and up large mountains to win stages, and maybe, the race.

Casual observers of the Tour de France can get lost in the green, yellow and polka dot jerseys, the mountain runs and flat sprints, and the team dynamics.

And this year -- is Lance Armstrong really out of contention?

Loren Mooney of Bicycling Magazine demystifies the race.

NEAL CONAN, host:

The World Cup may be over but the summer of international sporting events continues with the Tour de France. For three weeks, some of the best cyclists in the world race neck and neck over 2,000 miles. The route leads along country roads down the main streets of picturesque towns and up into the mountains. The grueling climbs in the Alps are often decisive.

But not unlike soccer, the popularity of bicycle racing mystifies many Americans. Everybody's heard about Lance Armstrong and about doping scandals. But casual observers may wonder about specialized terminology like the peloton, about the different color jersey, how teams of riders work together, and why the rider in front always seems to want somebody else to take over the lead.

So, cyclists, call and tell us why do you watch the Tour de France. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from our bureau in New York is Loren Mooney, editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine. She's attended five Tour de France races. And nice to have you back on the program today.

Ms. LOREN MOONEY (Editor-in-Chief, Bicycling Magazine): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I've got my copy of Bicycling Magazine, and the cover says "Lance vs Contador: The Rivalry that'll Blow the Race Wide Open."

Ms. MOONEY: Well, yes, it's true. Actually, the race did blow wide open, and unfortunately, Lance Armstrong was at the losing end of that yesterday on the Alps, ended up crashing - being involved in three crashes and losing almost 12 minutes to his main rivals.

CONAN: Well, this is a race that lasts 2,000 miles. Twelve minutes is impossible to make up?

Ms. MOONEY: It's a 2,200-mile race. To give some sense of perspective, that's roughly the distance between Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas. They do it over the course of three weeks at very fast speeds. But incredibly, oftentimes the distance between first and second is somewhere between and one and three minutes.

So for a top competitor like Lance to try to make up that much time -he's now 13 minutes, 26 seconds behind the current race leader, Cadel Evans of Australia. And even Lance said yesterday that for him, the -any chance of winning the tour has gone out the window. He still does have a teammate on his team, RadioShack team, American Levi Leipheimer currently in eighth place, two minutes, 14 seconds back. And Lance is going to do what he can to help Leipheimer do well.

CONAN: So in every team, presumably there's one star, one equivalent to Lance Armstrong and the other team - the rest of the teammates project him, do what they can to help him succeed?

Ms. MOONEY: That's right. Each team has nine riders. And what you have is basically the team leader, sort of your queen bee, and then eight worker bees working to keep that queen safe and happy for when the decisive moments of the race come. In cycling, a lot of the energy goes toward actually battling wind resistance. So if you're riding behind another rider, you can be using up to 30 percent less energy because you're in that slipstream of the rider who's battling the wind. So team riders will ride on the front, protect their leader. You'll often see a team member drift back to the team car to fetch water bottles to keep their leader well hydrated.

CONAN: So slipstream, this is like drafting in car racing, right?

Ms. MOONEY: That's exactly right.

CONAN: And so the guy who's in back has an easier time. And even when there are people in front on a breakaway, for example, who are from different teams, three or four riders, you will see them switch back and forth rather congenially so the same person isn't in front all the time.

Ms. MOONEY: That's right. There's a lot of deal making that can go on in those breakaways. And oftentimes, they'll share the work until a time when they've determined it's every man for himself. But up until then, they form a sort of de facto team. And then sometimes you can see they've actually decided who might be able to win the stage that day. And these wagers can be for anything, for future favors, for money, for other things that they determine are valuable.

CONAN: We're talking with Loren Mooney, the editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine. She's at our bureau in New York. Why do you watch the Tour de France? So we want to hear from our bicycling audience today. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with John(ph), John with us from San Francisco.

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, John.

JOHN: Yeah, the bicycle - or the Tour de France for me is just kind of the ultimate extension of what can be done with the bicycle. The bicycle is the most efficient form of transportation as far as energy spent for a single human being. And to me, the tour is just - takes it to the utmost what can - or what are the outer limits of what one man can do with this machine. It kind of puts it all at the very top limit of what's possible.

CONAN: The ultimate expression - the training that you have to do for this, John, though is pretty ferocious.

JOHN: That also. But if you try to think of how long it would take anyone to cover the same distance by foot or the amount of energy spent in any other way for these guys to go 3,000 miles in three weeks, it's kind of unfathomable without the machine itself.

Ms. MOONEY: That's true. It's interesting, too, these guys, they are very efficient in their energy use. But the amount of energy that they're using for human capacity can be fairly stunning. These guys are burning anywhere between six and 9,000 calories every day just to move their bicycles over the terrain. Nine thousand calories is the upper limits on some of those more difficult mountain stages. And that's more than the average American should eat in four-plus days to give you some sense of scale. These guys turn into very high-burning engines, if you will.

CONAN: In other words, don't invite them out to dinner.

Ms. MOONEY: Yeah. You'd be - if you have to pick up the tab, you'd be in some trouble for sure.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. There is also, as we mentioned, the training. But one of the aspects of the race that seems to startle a lot of people is they're riding through these little towns in France, for the most part, and people are standing right by the roadsides. There's no barriers. They just reach out and touch them, and sometimes they do.

Ms. MOONEY: That's right. One of the very cool things about the sport is it does give the public a chance to really go face to face with the riders on the roadway. Sometimes on those steep climbs, you'll see just walls of people almost blocking the road and then moving back at the last second to let the riders slip through. Given the access that the fans have - and there can be, you know, hundreds of thousands, close to a million people on some of these larger mountainsides - it is remarkable that there's not more interference from fans.

CONAN: Let's go next to Marshall(ph), Marshall with us from Holland, Michigan.

MARSHALL (Caller): Hello. The reason I watch the Tour de France is because this is the best time for a cyclist like myself, an amateur racer, to enjoy top-notch live coverage. Otherwise, it's all by magazines or over the Internet.

CONAN: The magazines are, of course, brilliant.

MARSHALL: Pardon?

CONAN: The magazines are brilliant.

MARSHALL: Magazines are brilliant, and I do have a subscription to Bicycling Magazine.

Ms. MOONEY: Oh, okay.

MARSHALL: But it's the best because you have every type of racing that you can enjoy. You have the mountains. You have sprinting. And you have time trials. So no matter what kind of cyclist you are, you get to watch all the world's greatest cyclists in one, you know, one three-week race. And it's the best. It's - I devour it every night and find excuses to be at home during the day to watch it live.

CONAN: One of interesting things, Marshall, that I find is the races within the races. So you have races that are sprints and people competing for the sprint championship, and then races within the mountains and people competing to be the King of the Mountains.

MARSHALL: Those are great because it actually allows you to pay attention on individual stages more so than the overall. While the overall is the top prize, the King of the Mountains and the sprint's jersey, even the young rider jersey, which is the white jersey, are prized. And among sprinters, which is my favorite competition, that's awesome because the speed that they hit, 45, 47, almost 50 kilometers an hour for huge amount of wattage, it's just amazing.

CONAN: Hmm. Marshall, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

MARSHALL: You bet.

CONAN: The jerseys, he mentioned, of course, the yellow jersey is the overall leader, but the other categories have all jerseys of their own, Loren Mooney.

Ms. MOONEY: Yeah, that's right. The yellow jersey, the overall leader, and that is the rider with the lowest cumulative time at the end of the three weeks. The green sprinter's jersey, determined by points, often who has the best sprint at the end. But there are also some intermediate sprints during some stages. The polka dot jersey is for the best mountain climber. And the white jersey is for the best rider 25 years of age or under.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rick(ph), Rick with us from Denver.

RICK (Caller): Hello. How are you today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

RICK: Great. Hey, I just - I love hearing a show about the Tour de France and I truly love watching it. And as a former cyclist, I spent four years after high school, before I started college, racing bikes. But I would propose that there are two reasons why people love watching the tour, and I'd love to hear your guest's comments on these. Number one is the cinematography is incredible. I mean, you really - you don't just watch a bike race when you watch the tour each morning. You get a chance to see some of the most beautiful scenery. And just the way they present it on TV, it's much more than just a sporting event.

And the second reason I would propose people love watching the Tour de France is Mr. Phil Liggett. It's - the British gentleman who speaks to us each morning, not just about the race and the current riders whom he seems to know each one of them personally, but about the history of the race, the history of France, the history of cycling, the history of whatever you like. Phil just seems to have so many stories that fill what is a very long day.

I mean, these races on television are quite long. And yet, you never get bored because each time he starts speaking he's got another little tidbit to share with you. So...

CONAN: Well...

RICK: ...I find that the cinematography and Phil just leave me gripped to the TV.

CONAN: I thought this call originally from the French Ministry of Tourism. But it turns out, of course, he was publicity department at Versus, so...

RICK: Well, I would love to know what your guest thinks of my proposal that those are two reasons why people continue to watch the tour despite many of the troubles that the athletes seem to create for themselves.

CONAN: Loren?

Ms. MOONEY: Yeah. I think that's right, particularly with the scenery of France. It is a true tour of the country. The route changes each year. Some years, it goes in a counterclockwise circle around France. This year going clockwise, where it's hitting the Alps mountains before the Pyrenees. And you're seeing tiny villages. You're seeing just breathtaking mountainscapes. You go into the Pyrenees, you see the Basque flags and the fans wearing orange, cheering.

And also, the cinematography that they're using at this point is outstanding. You're seeing not only the wide shots from helicopters, but these cameramen on motorbikes within the race are the true daredevils of the race. They get some amazing footage.

You're also seeing in some of the sprint stages now, they have a camera that goes alongside the racers at upwards of 50 miles an hour, sometimes at the very end to see the very last rocket ship efforts of the sprinters. So really covering it from all angles, again, getting up close, getting into the riders' faces at the moment of the action is pretty remarkable stuff.

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much for the call.

RICK: Thank you.

CONAN: The current issue of Bicycling Magazine offers a 2010 Tour de France fans guide. Its editor-in-chief, Loren Mooney, is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's some emails that we have. This from Matt(ph) in Liverpool, New York. Personally, couldn't name five riders, but I love to see the French countryside. And this is from Amon(ph) in Sunnyvale, California. As an Irishman I was inspired by the great Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche in the 1980s. Roche began as a paperboy racing his friends delivering newspapers in Dublin when he was a kid. He went on to win the Tour de France in a dramatic finish against Spaniard Pedro Delgado in 1987, the first and only Irishman ever to do so.

I'm 35 years old and still racing for the Los Gatos Club here in California, Greg LeMond's old club. So that's, of course, the other great American rider before Lance Armstrong.

And this is from Greg(ph) in Oklahoma City. It's a sporting event like no other. Unlike any other sport, it involves individual team -individual and team goals, none of which can be realized without the other. It has history, courage, teamwork and a host of unpredictable variables. I watch every day on the edge of my couch. Let's see if can go next to - this is Sterling(ph), Sterling with us from St. Helena in California.

STERLING (Caller): How are you all today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

STERLING: Fantastic. Loren, love your magazine. You know, I think one of the things that's - that one of your callers mentioned, you know, in the dual proposal, you do get to see such an amazing part of the world and you could see it in great detail. But I think the thing that really draws me is the community that gets created every year when the tour is broadcast. The communities of cyclists and triathletes out, you know, all throughout the United States all gather together and, you know, discuss this, talk about this.

I was in a bike shop yesterday in Napa Valley and getting my bike work done and a 71-year-old woman walked in and said, you know, I want to buy a bike. You know, I was watching the tour and I want to get out on my bike. And, you know, I happen to have a 74-year-old mother who's got a Trek carbon bike and, you know, she's all inspired. And I think that's the thing that's so compelling is the sense of community, you know, these 20-something days create, you know, in the U.S.

And it's not - you don't see that. I mean, I think you'd see that in the World Cup with football but - soccer, but you don't see that in any other sports where people get together and they're really - it's participatory as well.

CONAN: Well, the sport, Loren Mooney, has a natural clubhouse, the bike shop.

Ms. MOONEY: That's true. The bike shop is our clubhouse, sports bar, church, all in one for the cyclists. And I think you're absolutely right. You drew the World Cup analogy there. And I think that's a good one because cycling, much like soccer in the U.S., is rarely shown on television with, you know, with any - in any depth. And so, this is our time to celebrate much like you saw the rather large soccer community in the U.S. gathering in sports bars watching the World Cup.

This is the time when the cyclists gather together, watch, stop by the bike shop afterward, get into friendly arguments. It's funny how many times just this year I have watched the Tour de France live on TV, then gone out for a bike ride and I see a lot of other cyclists leaving at the same time, knowing that they had just watched the stage as well and now are free for the rest of their day to go out and do their own bike ride.

CONAN: Sterling, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

STERLING: Yeah.

CONAN: Email from Sean(ph) in Cleveland. The Tour de France reminds me of what the human body can achieve with massive amounts of dedication. Lance is my hero. All of these riders are my hero. And this is from Robert(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. Because it inspires me to write and because, quote, "you're not having fun until you're not having fun." And I suppose that last part is because it drives you to do things you didn't think you could do.

Ms. MOONEY: Yeah, absolutely. I think the tour is widely called the most difficult endurance event in the world. It's funny when you look at some of these racers, you look at them at the beginning of the Tour de France and at the end of the Tour de France, it's to me not unlike when you see a president about to finish his eighth year, end of the second term of office. And you look back at a photograph of the first inauguration and you realize just how much the president has aged in those eight years.

You look at a Tour de France rider first day and then on the podium in Paris, and they almost look like a different person. They're very gaunt. Their whole body composition has changed just from having been through the rigors of the event.

CONAN: Loren Mooney, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. MOONEY: Thank you.

CONAN: And good watching. Loren Mooney is editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine and joined us from our bureau in New York.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Join us tomorrow.

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