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Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Updated: July 21, 11:50 AM ET
How to watch the Tour de France

By Kathryn Bertine

Turn on the TV during July and flip to the Versus channel. ESPN and NBC may carry snippets of the Tour de France, but Versus runs it a la "Groundhog Day," broadcasting each day's stage over and over again.

On the screen, you'll see a large group of cyclists on a tiny road. The group is called a peloton. That is a French word meaning a group of cyclists who ride really close to one another and will inevitably crash.

The tiny road is somewhere in France. The race is nearly a century old. It covers 3,430 kilometers (about 2,100 miles) and lasts for 23 days.

The guy wearing yellow is winning. He is happy about this, but he knows everyone else wants to beat him, so he spends most of the day looking very confident on the outside, but quietly crying for his mommy on the inside. It is a common practice to cheer for the guy in yellow. Yellow was chosen because the race sponsor was a newspaper called L'Auto, and it printed on yellow paper. Perhaps it also doubles as homage to the olden days of clean drug-test samples.

The Tour de France consists of 22 teams totaling 198 riders. Roughly one half will finish. Those who drop out wait at the nearest IHOP.

That is not true. But this is: Because the Tour de France is a stage race, meaning a multiple-day event, the object is for the riders to get the least amount of accumulated time each day. Whoever has the least amount of time at the end wins.

To make the long race stages a little more exciting, there are four other competitions going on within the peloton. There are daily sprint competitions held at certain miles, and the winner of the sprint points gets to wear a green jersey. Sprinters help make the Tour a little more action packed, and viewers appreciate this. While the guy in yellow gets to be the star, the green jersey is like winning the Oscar for best supporting actor.

There is also a jersey given to the best young rider -- the top finisher of the day who is under age 26. This jersey is white. After the race, he is given a package of crayons so he can enter his jersey in a coloring contest. No, not really.

When watching the tour, it is common to see a small group of riders breakaway from the peloton and try to go it alone for most of the day. This uses an extraordinary amount of energy and is simultaneously admirable and stupid. Much like a little puppy trying to goad the older dog into playing, the older dog lets the puppy run wild. Until the end. Then the big dog peloton comes charging back and smacks the four-man puppy upside the head just before taking the puppy out at the finish line. However, every now and then, the puppy actually triumphs. The big dog sulks. This is fun to watch. It is acceptable to cheer for both the puppy and the big dog.

Another jersey goes to the best climber. He is called the "King of the Mountains" and his jersey is covered in red polka dots, which symbolize altitude sickness. Actually, the red polka dots come from the 1975 Tour de France sponsor, Poulain, a chocolate maker whose bars were wrapped in polka dot paper. History is fun.

Many first-time Tour watchers wonder why there are so many crashes. This year alone there were more than 10 in the first few days. Narrow roads, potholes, impatient press vehicles, distracted fans and tired riders are all factors. The biggest danger, of course, is texting. While it cannot be confirmed by credible sources, a rider from Radio Shack caused a massive pile up during a flat stage when he allegedly attempted tweeting "I miss Lance."

While there are no special jerseys awarded for the following categories, there should be: best old rider (gray), best road rash (purple-ish) and finally, best excuse for failing a drug test (black and white cow print), since, you know, Alberto Contador of Spain claimed eating tainted beef caused his failed test in 2010.

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are the main commentators of the Tour de France. Their dry British humor, cycling intelligence and penchant for historic landmarks is top notch, and they possess a unique ability to simultaneously instill both excitement and naptime in their viewers. The Tour de France would not be complete without Liggett and Sherwen. Fans love them. French castles worship them.

Finally, the best way to watch the tour is with a cycling fanatic. A knowledgeable fan can get a newbie viewer looped in with the lingo, the logos, the history and the excitement. The Tour is, after all, the most incredible, difficult and demanding sports event on the planet. At least one day this July, turn on the TV and watch a little. Look for the different jerseys. The road rash. The danger, determination and grit.

The Tour has something for every sports fan. Except an IHOP filled with tweeting cyclists.