By Roger Childs

Around 4,500 people work on the Tour, while 10-12 million fans are expected to line the route watching 176 riders from 22 teams, compete for the coveted yellow jersey, worn by the daily leader and overall winner of the general classification (GC). –Sports journalist, Steve Sutcliffe

Heading off through Normandy

It’s the most famous cycle race in the world and has often been mired in controversy – cheating, doping, booby traps and criminal activity. However, it has never lost its irresistible attraction because of the breath-taking landscapes it passes through; the intense competition between individuals and teams; downhill speeds getting up to 90 km/h, and 70 km/h sprint finishes on many stages. 

The 2021 Tour de France started from Brest in Brittany last Saturday and has 21 stages over three weeks covering a total of 3417.5 km. The route is different every year, and towns and cities across France compete to have a stage start or finish, or both. One consistent feature is the finish on the cobble stones of the Champs-Elysees in Paris – this year on 28 July – in front of hundreds of thousands of cheering fans.

This year Le Tour heads from the north-west to the French Alps in eastern France, then south to Provence and on into the mountainous Pyrennees before heading north into Aquitaine and on to the French capital. There will the usual mix of flat, sprinter-friendly days, two time trials and climbs up some of the highest mountain passes in Western Europe.

Humble beginnings and dubious tactics

Le Tour started as a publicity stunt for the Parisian sports magazine L’Auto in 1903. Commercial interests were involved from the start, and prize money and bonuses were on offer. There were six stages in this first tour which covered 2428 km. 

It … was an odyssey of suffocating dust, blinding sun, buffeting mistral winds, bone-breaking vibrations, not to mention punctures, falls and losing the way. –Cycling writer, Serge Laget 

Out of 60 starters, the winner was chimneysweep Maurice Garin, also known as The White Bulldog because of his white coat and aggressive riding style. Over 30 riders were disqualified for cheating and two simply disappeared during the race!

Race rules evolved as time went on, especially after the 1904 tour when a bizarre range of tactics were used by riders and their supporters, anxious to win the prizes. The nefarious strategies included

  • catching trains on the longer stages
  • booby traps made of nails
  • abuse and debris thrown at rival cyclists
  • a mechanics deliberately cutting a brake cable to allow four time champion Jacques Anquetil to gain an advantage by having a new bike at the start of a mountain climb
  • even a plot by the supporters of French rider Fauré, to knife his opponents!

In 1905 new rules and closer surveillance by race referees resulted in a cleaner and more peaceful tour, even though an estimated 125 kg of tacks and nails were strewn on the largely unsealed roads!  

Plenty of excitement and superb coverage

Julian Alaphilippe

The television coverage is brilliant and the camera work from helicopters, drones and motorbikes give viewers amazing angles and perspectives not only of the race, but also the picturesque farmland, landscapes, chateaux, churches, castles, villages, towns and cities along the way.

One of the big unknowns is survival, especially as crashes and punctures are common and top riders can be forced out because of injury. This year on the first stage a stupid German spectator waving a large banner at the motorbike camera man brought down dozens of riders, and in the second leg there were five crashes. Several riders are now already out of the event. Two of the favourites – Primoz Roglic and Geraint Thomas were badly hurt in Stage 2.

A key role in each of the 22 teams, is for the 7 other members called domestiques to support the leader who is the man with the best chance of winning the Tour, or, of at least ranking high in the general classification.

Who are the top contenders for the 2021 Tour?

Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar was a revelation for Tour de France fans last year. Just when it seemed impossible for anyone to pry the yellow jersey from his compatriot Primoz Roglic, Pogacar scrounged second after second before ultimately turning the tables in an unforgettable Planche des Belles Filles time trial. 

Julian Alaphilippe very likely represents France’s best chance at claiming the Tour for its home country. Solid in time trials, strong in the mountains and always up for big races, the 29-year-old has the wherewithal to shine once again and he has made the Tour a major objective for this year.

Geraint Thomas didn’t compete last year but was the winner in 2018. Thomas will be have plenty of help  from talented team mates: Richie Porte, who recently won the Dauphiné and finished third overall in last year’s Tour de France; Richard Carapaz, the recent Tour de Suisse winner and 2019 Giro d’Italia winner, as well as Englishman Tao Geoghehan Hart, who won the 2020 Giro d’Italia.

David Gaudu is a 24-year-old from Brittany and is considered to be one of France’s best riders. Earlier in the season he beat both Pogocar and Roglic.

• 27 year old Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez rode his first Tour de France last year and on the basis of excellent mountain riding. was placed sixth overall.

Familiar English riders such as four times winner, Chris Froome, and sprinting ace, Mark Cavendish, having missed the last two tours will be in this year’s field. Cavendish will be keen to increase his total of 31 stage wins to challenge the Eddie Merckx  record of 34. But there will be no Kiwis riding this year.

Big business

The stakes are very high for all concerned: teams, individual riders and sponsors. Having riders near the front during the event and actually winning stages means that teams with sponsors’ logos get world-wide exposure on television and in other media.

There are large amounts of cash involved. As seven time Tour Kiwi rider, Julian Dean states: Le Tour is big business with many of the … teams having annual budgets of upwards of $47,000,000. As it moves around France and neighbouring countries it has its own police force and bank as well as hundreds of media people and scores of commentators.

Sky Sport has all the action and you can see full stages live or pick up a 30 minutes highlights package on a daily basis.