Here are the answers to those simple questions you're too shy to ask as you await the arrival of the peloton.
So what's so great about the Tour de France – it's just a bike race, right?
Hm, yes and, er, no. Yes, it's just a bike race, but no, it's not just any old bike race – it's the most famous, most challenging, most controversial bike race in the world. And it's the most prestigious of cycling's Grand Tours (Spain's Vuelta a España in September and the Giro d'Italia in May are the others). It’s also the world’s largest annual spectator event with millions of people lining the route to see the peloton go by.
You’ve lost me. What’s the ‘peloton’?
Sorry – that’s just means ‘pack’ or ‘group’, and it’s used to describe the main bunch of cyclists. If you’re watching in France, you might also hear some of the following:
une étape: a stage of the race (the Tour is broken down into stages; one stage per day)
la course: the race
la tête de course: the stage leader (whoever’s winning on that particular day)
un échappé: a breakaway rider (he’s broken away from the ‘peloton’)
un domestique: a support rider (he rides in support of the team leader in line with team tactics)
une équipe: a team (there are nine riders in each team)
le parcours: the route
contre la montre: time trial (there are a few of these each Tour; they are timed individual or team stages rather than straight races)
So where can I see it?
The route changes every year but there’s a good chance that if you’re in France in July, you’ll be able to catch a stage or two somewhere without too much hassle – see our spectator’s guide for information on how to prepare.
This year, the Tour de France runs from Saturday, June 30 to Sunday, July 22. It’ll cover 3,497km over 1 Prologue and 20 stages; as usual, there are a few rest days thrown in but it’s still insanely gruelling.
The Tour always ends on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but the Grand Départ – or start – changes every year. This year – the 99th edition of the Tour – the first stage will be a 6.1km Individual Time Trial Prologue in the Belgian city of Liège. After that, it’s across through Brlgium to northern France, where stage towns include Orchies, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Abbeville, Rouen and Saint-Quentin. Then it's across to eastern France for the first of the mountain stages through the Alps. The 2012 Tour de France has 25 mountain level two, level one or highest level mountain passes or summit finishes.
Limoux, Foix, Blagnac, Samatan, Pau, Bagnères-de-Luchon and Peyragudes all feature on the programme as the Tour makes its way across the Pyrenees.
How can I tell who’s winning?
There are a few different categories – or classifications – and the leader of each wears a different coloured jersey.
The overall leader – or general classification leader – wears the famous yellow jersey (or maillot jaune), which basically means he’s taken the least time so far over all of the stages combined.
The green jersey (or maillot vert) is for the general points classification. Points are awarded for first, second and third past the finish line at the end of each stage. The green jersey is usually contested between the sprinters as they are the best at accelerating at the end of the race to nudge ahead of the peloton and claim the points.
The polka dot jersey is white with red dots, and it’s worn by the best climber. Points are awarded to the winners of each mountain climb, with more points awarded for more difficult climbs. A grading system is used to rate the climbs, from fourth category for the easiest climbs through to first category for hardest climbs; the most gruelling of all are deemed 'hors categorie' – or 'beyond category'.
The white jersey is for the ‘best young rider’ – only those 25 years or younger in the year of the race are eligible.
There's also a teams classification category, with the winning team having the lowest culmulative overall time. The times are based on those of the team's first three riders across the line at the end of each stage.
BikeRadar has a good FAQ section for the more technical aspects of the rules.
What does the winner get (other than a yellow shirt)?
In 2011, whoever’s wearing the yellow jersey in Paris will pocket a cool €450,000. That’ll come from a kitty of €3.2 million which will be awarded to the winning teams and the riders of the various classifications.
What else do I need to know?
If you plan on watching the Tour de France in the flesh, you need to do little research beforehand to make sure you're there in plenty of time to see not just the race, but also the spectacle of the publicity caravan (basically a procession of advertising cars that throw out freebies and get the crowd in a festive mood). You should definitely get hold of the Official 2012 Tour de France programme, which is out now in the UK with profiles of each Tour town and the route, plus team information.
You'll have to arrive super-early to beat the road closures ahead of the caravan's arrival – and also to nab the best vantage points. The start and finish of any stage can get crowded (though they're still lots of fun), but it's not hard to find a nice, sparsely populated stretch of country road or mountainside along the more remote sections of the route. See our spectator's guide for more details. As July approaches, we'll log more information on Freewheeling France, as well as on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, including details of local road closures.
For more detailed information on Tour history and rules, see The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France by Les Woodland – a pannier-sized guide, it's perfect for swotting up.
See also the Tour de France in Numbers.