In the Tour de France, even the helpers have a shot at victory

Although it is scored individually, the Tour is truly a team sport. Few men are strong enough to win without the help of their eight teammates, known as domestiques.

Domestiques, or workers, always stay close to their team leader to bring up water bottles from the team car, set a steady pace at the front of the pack, provide a wheel in the event of a flat tire, or sacrifice themselves in the wind to pull back dangerous breaks by other riders.

Their overall time and place isnt important, so they often ride easy at the finish of a hard stage after they have done their work, just trying to finish within the time cut so they can work another day.

This would seem a Sisyphean task, but every domestique has a chance at glory: Winning a stage of the race.

Just one stage win is enough to highlight most riders careers. The win guarantees a contract for the next couple years, and instantly elevates him to god-status in his hometown.

Riders from years past have had their tombstones engraved with "Tour de France Stage Winner," the single victory is so important.

The back of the pack

The gruppetto, Italian for group, is one of the interesting facets of the Tour. It refers to the last big group on the road on a hard mountain stage, made up of the slow climbers and riders who are have had a bad day.

Because there is a time cut for every stage (usually about 30 minutes behind the winner), the gruppetto functions as a security blanket for all the slow riders.

A veteran rider sets the pace, "guestimating" the winning finish time and adjusting the gruppettos pace to beat the time cut. With as many as 50 riders, riders in the gruppetto know that even if they finish outside the time cut the race organizers wont eliminate so many riders. The organizers make an "exception" and all the riders live to ride another stage.

Riders who fall off the pace set by the gruppetto face the disgrace of being caught by the "broom wagon," a van that follows the back of the Tour, "sweeping" straggling riders off of the course and out of the race. Many a tale of bravery has been told about the tired or injured rider who doggedly avoided the broom wagon's bristles.

And while the best riders in the Tour bask in the brightly-colored leaders jerseys, the rider at the bottom of GC bears the unwelcome stigma of the Lanterne Rouge.

Although no actual jersey is awarded for the "red light" at the end of the race, every lowly rider is keenly aware of the standings and makes an effort to avoid this distinction.

Three-time winner Greg LeMond has said that the French are the best sports fans in the world because they love all competitors who race with heart and determination, especially the underdog.

The French will cheer any rider suffering up a hard climb or straining to stay ahead of the pack. France loves their Tour, and it shows. What better country to hold the greatest spectacle in the world of sports?

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