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Understanding Cycling’s Major Tours: A New Viewer’s Guide

Understanding Cycling’s Major Tours: A New Viewer’s Guide

Cycling teams are organized by corporate sponsors. Each team may consist of as many as thirty riders of whom eight (nine until 2018) are chosen for each of the Grand Tours – the Giro d’ Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a Espana. While many teams tend to have several riders from the country in which the sponsor is based, that is not a requirement. Eighteen teams are chosen for each tour based on their ranking, with four additional spots offered by race organizers to wildcard selections. These selections are usually but not always given to teams based in the host country.

Timing and Focus

The cycling season is long and grueling, consisting of single day “classics,” several multi-day tours, and, of course, the three Grand Tours. Few athletes are able to maintain peak physical condition for all three of the Grand Tours, which is why teams often have different riders focus on different tours. Sometimes this focus means that a team’s top rider will skip one or two tours entirely to focus on the third, while other times this means that a top rider may ride in support of a teammate on one or two tours while focusing on the others. Just a handful of riders have managed to win more than one tour in a single season, and few attempt the feat.

The Competitions

Each of cycling’s Grand Tours has six competitions over the course of the race. Most teams and riders are focused on only one or two of the competitions at any given time.

  • General Classification – The General Classification, or “GC” as it is often called, is the fastest overall individual time. Each rider’s time from each stage is added together, and the fastest overall time wins. In some races, cyclists may have time bonuses, which are seconds reduced from a rider’s overall time, awarded to the fastest riders on individual stages. This is the primary competition in the race and typically gets the most attention.
  • Sprint – In the sprint competition, points are awarded to the top several finishers on stages according to their order of finish, with the most points awarded for flat stages and the fewest points awarded for time trials. Sprint points are also awarded to the first three riders to reach specific points on a race route. More points are awarded for sprints at the end of stages. This competition is decided solely on points and has nothing to do with overall time.
  • King of the Mountains – The King of the Mountains competition is similar to the sprint competition in that it is determined by points, not time. Each climb during the race is categorized from Category 4 (easiest) to “Beyond Cateogory” (most difficult) with more points awarded for the most difficult climbs. The winner of this competition is the racer who accumulates the most points in the category.
  • Stage – Each day’s stage is a race within a race.
  • Team – The team competition is determined by adding the times of each team’s three fastest riders on each individual stage. Few teams come into a major tour targeting this competition, but as the race goes on, those who happen to be in position to win it typically take it seriously.
  • Young Rider – This is determined in the same way as the General Classification, but only riders under 25 are eligible. While it rarely happens, a rider may win both the General Classification and the Young Rider competitions.

Stage Types

There are five types of stages in the major tours.

  • Individual Time Trial (ITT) – In the Individual Time Trial, each rider starts the course separately and has his individual time recorded. These are the shortest stages on each tour, but they can be pivotal.
  • Team Time Trial (TTT) – Each team rides the course together. Team members record the time of the fifth team member to complete the course, though any dropped team members record individual times.
  • Flat Stage – Flat stages usually involve sprint finishes. They may have hills or low category mountains, but most riders typically finish as a group. These stages offer the most points in sprint competitions but seldom affect the GC. Exceptions are when the field gets split, which is usually caused by wind or crashes.
  • Medium Mountain Stage – These stages typically have Category 2 and 3 climbs. They may impact the riders at the top of the GC, but more often they give GC contenders the opportunity to separate themselves from the field and King of the Mountains contenders the opportunity to pick up points, especially in close competitions.
  • High Mountain Stage – As the category suggests, these stages typically have one or more Beyond Category, Category 1, or Category 2 climbs. They are pivotal both in GC and King of the Mountains competitions. As with the time trials, they often make for much bigger gaps.


While individual glory in the GC, Sprint, King of the Mountains, and stages tends to get the most attention, road cycling is very much a team sport. A team may have a contender in any or all of those categories, and his teammates ride primarily in support of him. They may strive to keep him toward the front of the pack to avoid crashes, lead him into the mountains to put his rivals in difficulty, chase down breakaways, or provide a lead out for their sprinter. In many cases, riders will sacrifices their own chances of high finishes in support of their teammates. It is common to see some teams focusing on supporting a sprinter and others working to protect their GC contender. Both before the race begins and as it unfolds, the strategies of teams will be different according to the competition(s) on which they are focused and their teams’ strengths and weaknesses.

Cycling is a great sport for those who take the time to understand it. New viewers should not expect to understand everything at once but rather take the time to learn the sport in bits and pieces. The above offers a nice overview and an easy reference for those who are just starting to appreciate it.