Why don't they all try to win the race? Is it one race or lots of races? Why do they have teams? Why isn't the rider who's won the most stages so far, that little English guy with the big grin, a favourite to win the big race?
I remember that the Tour de France was strangely complex when I started following it in the mid 1990s and the above are some of the questions I've been asked by those who've heard some time in the past few years that an Australian, Cadel Evans, was a possible winner. And it must be mystifying for newcomers to bike racing to see a couple of hundred riders apparently just making up the numbers.
This year the Australian Cadel Evans is in the box seat to win, after coming second twice, and if he does he will be Australia's most internationally celebrated athlete of 2011. Le tour is the world's greatest and most arduous sporting event and to have an Australian rider among the front-runners is a national honour. Soccer? You watch these cyclists crash then get back on the bike, watch them being bandaged by doctors while continuing to ride, and you dare mention diving! Sorry, I meant soccer.
With that out of the way I'll offer a potted explanation of the Tour de France. The major race is over the entire tour, all 21 stages, and the winner has the lowest time over the 3000-plus kilometres. The yellow jersey is awarded progressively to the rider with the lowest time and finally to the winner. There is a green jersey for the rider who amasses the most sprint points and a polka dot jersey for mountain points. Each of the 21 stages is itself a race, and victory in one of these can make a rider famous.
Not all the teams will have a contender for the overall race, for what's known as the general classification. Some will hope to win the flat stages with a sprinter, others the mountain stages with a specialist climber, and some will be striving to get a strong allrounder into an escape from the peloton to win the day. The overall winner will be a among the world's best climbers and among the fastest over a long distance, and another reason there are few contenders is that he must be able to keep it up for three weeks.
The other riders in the nine-man teams shepherd the leader from wind and interference from other riders and as much as possible keep him out of crashes. They take part in strategic moves, act as decoys, guide the leader back to the peleton if he has a problem, and ferry water and food.
SBS TV has highlights of each stage at 6 each evening and a live cover from 10 each night, and I suggest you watch or record at least the last hour of stage 18 on Thursday night and stage 19 on Friday night.
Any questions for the blog's tour nuts? And who are your three for the podium on Sunday?