FOR SOME people, spectator sports don’t get any better than the Tour de France. The intrigue, tactics, colour and, of course, the scenery on show in this iconic 120-year race is the highlight of their sporting calendar.

This year’s Tour will see 22 teams of eight riders chasing the coveted yellow jersey, as they set out from Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country on a month-long cycling odyssey that culminates in Paris on the Champs-Élysées on July 23.

Whether you live in lycra or just enjoy the spectacle, here’s everything you need to know ahead of this year’s race.

When did the Tour de France start?

The Tour’s beginnings were not particularly auspicious – it was started in 1903 by enterprising journalist and cyclist, Geo Lefevre, to boost sales for his newspaper L’Auto. The race, won by Maurice Garin, proved an instant hit with the newspaper’s readers and the wider public. Only World Wars have stopped it since.

What’s the format of the Tour de France?

The Tour is a test of endurance, tactical nous and teamwork. The route changes every year, sometimes running in clockwise and other times counter-clockwise circuits of France and often includes stages in other European countries – this year’s Tour begins in Bilbao in Spain’s Basque Country. The format, however, remains the same with 21 day-long stages over 23 days, covering roughly 3,500 kilometres. Included in these stages are time trials, the notorious climbing legs through the Pyrenees and the Alps and the final stage into Paris, finishing on the Champs-Élysées.

Each year 20 to 22 teams of eight riders compete, with the winner decided by a cumulative tally of their times from each stage. The rider with the lowest cumulative time wins, earning the iconic yellow jersey.

What do the different coloured jerseys mean?

Yellow Jersey (General Classification): Awarded to the race winner, based on cumulative time to complete all stages.

Green Jersey (Points Classification): The secondary tier of the race sees points awarded to high place finishes in stages and winning intermediate sprints.

Polka dot Jersey (Mountains Classification): This is awarded to the rider who reaches the summit of the mountains first, there after known as the ‘King of the Mountains’.

White Jersey (Young Rider Classification): Awarded to the leading rider under 26.

Numbers (Team classification): This goes to the team with the first three finishers on each stage. Rather than a coloured jersey, the numbers on the riders’ jerseys are highlighted against a yellow background instead of white.

Who are the Tour de France champions?

Four riders have won the Tour five times:

Jacques Anquetil (France)L The Frenchman won in 1957 and then from 1961-64.

Eddie Merckx (Belgium) Nicknamed ‘The Cannibal’: Merckx won in 1969, 70, 71, 72 and 74.

Bernard Hinault (France) With the contrasting nicknames of ‘The Badger’ and ‘The Boss: Hinault won in 78, 79, 81, 82 and 85.

Miguel Induráin (Spain): ‘Big Mig’ won five straight Tours from 1991-95, the only five-time winner to win five consecutive races.

The stages of the 2023 Tour de France

Stage 1

Saturday 1 July: Bilbao-Bilbao, 182km

This year’s Tour starts in Spain’s Basque Country. With four steep climbs in the run home this is a rather nightmarish opening stage.

Stage 2

Sunday 2 July: Vitoria Gasteiz-San Sebastián, 209km

More climbing than usual for an early stage, the real test is the Alto de Jaizkibel 16km from the finish. That should disperse the field.

Stage 3

Monday 3 July: Amorebieta-Bayonne, 187.4km

A flatter stage with a nice downhill run to the line for sprinters.

Stage 4

Tuesday 4 July: Dax-Nogaro, 181.8km

Another flat one, suiting sprinters.

Stage 5

Wednesday July 5: Pau-Laruns, 163km

Okay, we’re heading up! Two quad-wrecking climbs into the Pyrenees. Team masseuses will earn their money at the end of this one.

Stage 6

Thursday 6 July: Tarbes-Cauterets, 145km

Day two in the Pyrenees features the soul-sapping Col du Tourmalet, then another long climb to finish.

Stage 7

Friday 7 July: Mont de Marsan-Bordeaux, 170km

Happy times, we’re back on flat land with a sprint to the finish.

Stage 8

Saturday 8 July: Libourne-Limoges, 201km

At just over 200 clicks, this is a long one with an undulating final third. A bitch in other words.

Stage 9

Sunday 9 July: St Léonard de Noblat-Le Puy de Dôme, 182.5km

A stage devoted to French champion Raymond Poulidor starts in his hometown and finishes on an extinct volcano. The last 4km is comically steep.

Stage 10

Tuesday 11 July: Vulcania-Issoire, 167km

Riders will have fresh-ish legs after a rest day, which may allow them to enjoy this stage’s lush vistas before a downhill finish.

Stage 11

Wednesday 12 July: Clermont Ferrand-Moulins, 180km

Expect a mass sprint to the line, likely the last for a while.

Stage 12

Thursday 13 July: Roanne-Belleville en Beaujolais, 169km

Winding through Beaujolais vineyards, this is spectacular for fans but with some mid-sized climbs, no picnic (with a bottle of Beau and brie, of course!) for riders.

Stage 13

Friday 14 July: Châtillon sur Chalaronne-Grand Colombier, 138km

Look out for a big climb around the middle and a killer 17km ascent to the finish.

Stage 14

Saturday 15 July: Annemasse-Morzine, 152km

Featuring the arduous Col de Joux Plane, you’re looking at a long, steep climb followed by complicated descent to the line.

Stage 15

Sunday 16 July: Les Gets-Saint Gervais Mont Blanc, 179km

Up we go. In the initial run to Les Amerands the gradient reaches 18%.

Stage 16

Tuesday 18 July: Passy-Combloux, 22.4km ITT

After a second rest day, riders are rewarded with a time trial. On your marks!

Stage 17

Wednesday 19 July: Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc-Courchevel, 166km

Before we exit the alpine stages, riders must first negotiate the Col de la Loze, which at 28km, is the longest climb they’ve seen for a while.

Stage 18

Thursday 20 July: Moûtiers-Bourg-en-Bresse, 185km

With a long flat run out we’re back in mass sprint territory.

Stage 19

Friday 21 July: Moirans-en-Montagne-Poligny, 173km

Another flat stage, this should mostly be a sprint save for little ascent 26km from the line.

Stage 20

Saturday 22 July: Belfort-Le Markstein Fellering, 133.5km

You thought we were done with mountains? This final mountain stage could well be decisive.

Stage 21

Sunday 23 July: Saint Quentin en Yvelines-Paris Champs Élysées, 115km

Almost there. The final stage starts at the national velodrome before finishing on the Champs Elysées, where the sprinters can show off for the cameras. Due to the Paris 2024 Olympics, next year’s Tour will conclude in Nice, the first time it’s finished outside Paris since 1905.

The Favourites

Tadej Pogačar 

INSTAGRAM | @tadejpogacar

Team: UAE Team Emirates 
Country: Slovenia 
Age: 24 
Record: Winner in 2020 and 2021, runner-up in 2022 

Slovenia’s biggest sporting hero isn’t NBA player Luka Doncic, it’s this guy. Unfortunately, after stellar results in the European spring, the 24-year-old superstar fractured his wrist at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, meaning he’s had a bit of time out of the saddle of late. Will be determined to avenge last year’s loss to Vingegaard. 

Jonas Vingegaard

INSTAGRAM | @jonasvingegaard

Team: Jumbo-Visma 
Country: Denmark 
Age: 25 
Tour record: Winner 2022, runner-up 2021 

With Pogačar out of the picture in the lead-up to the Tour, Vingegaard has been shining. Hoping to become a back-to-back winner, he and Pogačar have quickly become this generation’s Armstrong and Contador, sans the artificial assistance, we hope. 

Jai Hindley

INSTAGRAM | @jhindley_

Team: Bora-Hansgrohe 
Country: Australia 
Age: 27 
Tour record: none 

Yes, an Aussie with a realistic shot at the podium after the top two. Hindley is making his Tour debut but boasts a victory in last year’s Giro d’Italia.  

Mikel Landa

INSTAGRAM | @landameana

Team: Bahrain-Victorious 
Age: 33 
Country: Spain 
Tour record: 4th in 2017 and 2020 

This year’s race starts in his home, the Basque Country, which could see this consistent veteran get off to a flyer. Will likely battle with Hindley for the third podium spot. 

The Tour de France Scandals

The Tour has long been plagued by doping scandals, cheating and some horrific crashes caused by over-zealous or camera-chasing spectators. Here are some of the Tour’s darkest days: 

1904 – Maurice Garin  

Poor Maurice. After winning the inaugural race, the next year he was beaten up in St. Etienne by fans of hometown favourite Antoine Faure.  

1967 – Tom Simpson  

Simpson had become the first Brit to claim the yellow jersey in 1964 but in 1967 he collapsed unconscious in Mont Ventoux and died at the scene. Traces of amphetamines and alcohol were found in his system. 

1975 – Eddy Merckx 

A fan jumped onto the course and punched five-time winner Merckx in the back. The Belgium star sustained liver damage, which possibly robbed him of a sixth title, though he did manage to finish second.  

1998 – The Festina affair 

Perhaps the Tour’s darkest day, though that’s saying something. A boot full of drugs was found in the support car of French team Festina.  

2010 – Alberto Contador 

The Spaniard won three Tours but was stripped of his third in 2010 after testing positive for Clenbuterol. 

2012 – Lance Armstrong 

For a long time the seven-time winner was the sport’s pin-up boy – who didn’t rock a yellow Livestrong bracelet in the early aughts? But in 2012, US Anti-Doping Agency found the American had been using performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career, stripping him of his titles and handing him a lifetime ban. 

2021 – Crashing the party 

Spectators have always enjoyed close access to the course but it’s come at a cost. In 2021 a French woman who encroached on the track holding a sign for the camera was hit by German rider Toby Martin, triggering a pile-up that wiped out most of the peloton and caused two riders to withdraw from the race. 

Ben Jhoty covers sport and wellness for Esquire Australia.

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