Tour de France
- Venue: Starts in Liege; three days in Belgium before 20 days in France, including two rest days
- Date: Sat, 30 June to Sun, 22 July
Coverage: Live text commentary and reports on each stage on BBC Sport website, plus radio 5 live commentary
The 99th edition of the Tour de France begins in the Belgian city of Liege on Saturday with Bradley Wiggins aiming to become the first British rider to win the prestigious three-week race.
Australian Cadel Evans will attempt to
defend his title,
while world road race champion Mark Cavendish, Wiggins's Team Sky colleague, is the defending
green points jersey winner.
The Tour has seen some magical moments - sprinkled with plenty of controversial ones - throughout its 109-year history...
A is for Armstrong.
Lance Armstrong not only won the race seven times - two more than any other rider - but won them consecutively between 1999 and 2005 after surviving testicular cancer. Doping allegations continue to cast doubt over his success, although he
steadfastly maintains his innocence,
pointing out he has never tested positive for performance-enhancing substances.
B is for broom wagon.
First introduced in 1910, the vehicle, which did at one time carry a broom, follows the race collecting stragglers or those who fail to make it to the finish in the permitted time.
C is for caravan.
Created in 1930 for sponsors to advertise their wares, the publicity caravan also lets spectators know the riders were on their way. It is now an integral part of the race, taking 45 minutes to pass through each village and town en route. The procession of multi-coloured floats, sponsored by a wide variety of companies, doles out a multitude of free gifts. A recent survey revealed that 39% of spectators were drawn to the Tour first and foremost by the procession.
D is for domestique.
The servants of the team who race for their team leader. It is virtually impossible for a rider to win the race without the help of his team-mates. The domestiques fetch and carry food and drink, ride at the front to provide a slipstream and protection from winds. They also act as pacemakers should their team leader crash or struggle on a climb.
Tour de France in numbers
- Most overall wins:
7 - Lance Armstrong (US)
- Most stage wins:
34 - Eddy Merckx (Bel)
- Most time-trial wins:
20 - Bernard Hinault (Fra)
- Oldest Tour winner:
36 - Firmin Lambot (Bel)
- Youngest winner:
19 - Henri Cornet (Fra)
- Most starts:
16 - Joop Zoetemelk (Ned); George Hincapie (US)
- Best British finish:
4th - Robert Millar (GB), 1984; Bradley Wiggins (GB), 2009
E is for Etape du tour.
If you're sitting at home watching the race unfold thinking this looks easy, sign yourself up to ride a stage of the Tour next year. Around 8,500 amateur riders get the professional treatment with roads closed to traffic and refreshments provided. The 2012 amateur edition features two stages - both are mountainous, one in the Alps and one in the Pyrenees - but beware the broom wagon.
F is for finished almost before it had begun.
Cheating blighted the second Tour de France in 1904. The top four to finish were disqualified (see 'G is for Garin') and race organiser Henri Desgrange declared: "The Tour de France is finished and I'm afraid its second edition has been the last. We have reached the end of the Tour and we are disgusted, frustrated and discouraged." Frenchman Henri Cornet was awarded the title, although he was reprimanded for accepting a lift in a car. He remains the race's youngest winner, at the age of 19.
G is for Garin.
Maurice Garin holds the distinction of winning the first Tour de France in 1903 and also the dubious honour of being the first winner to be disqualified, a year later. It is thought the Frenchman caught a train at some point, while he was also given illegal feeds from officials in a race where cheating was rife. Riders took lifts in cars or were towed: tying one end of a wire to a wing mirror and attaching the other to cork and holding it in your teeth was a favoured method. Partisan fans, cheering on riders from their region, attacked rivals, while nails were often left on the road to puncture tyres.
H is for Hinault.
Bernard Hinault was the last French winner of the race, in 1985. It was his fifth victory and cemented his place as one of the all-time greats of cycling. Hinault is the only rider to have won each of the three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain) at least twice.
I is for idea.
While L'Auto editor
is credited as organising the first race in 1903, the idea of a bike race around France was actually suggested by
one of his young journalists, as a way of boosting the ailing circulation of the sports paper. Desgrange was not wholeheartedly behind the idea and, after putting Lefevre in charge, stayed away from the first Tour. However, L'Auto's circulation more than doubled to 65,000 and by 1933 it was up to 854,000.
LeMond snatched victory from Fignon on the closing stage of the 1989 Tour
J is for jerseys.
There are four up for grabs: the prestigious
(see 'Y is for yellow') for the race leader and overall winner;
for winning the most points in the race (see 'S is for sprinter'); the red and white
for the best climber (see 'K is for king of the mountains'); and
for the best young rider, aged under 25 at the start of the year. Only one man has won them all, Eddy Merckx.
K is for king of the mountains.
Points are awarded to the first riders over the summits of climbs, which are categorised from one to four. A fifth, 'hors categorie' (outside category), is applied to the most severe ascents. The leader wears the polka dot jersey, and France's Richard Virenque has the most overall victories. He won seven from 1994 to 2004, but doping scandals blighted his achievements.
L is for lanterne rouge and longest race.
The rider who is last in the race is known as the lanterne rouge, which translates to red light and refers to the light at the back of a train or car so it can be seen. Belgium's Wim Vansevenant is the only man to finish last three times, in 2006, 2007 and 2008. L is also for longest race - the 1926 version was a staggering 5,745km (3,569 miles long). Today's race is a more modest 3,497km.
M is for mountains.
The race first crossed the Pyrenees in 1910 and the Alps one year later, with riders often pushing their bikes to the summits. The first finishes at altitude - Alpe d'Huez, Sestriere and Puy-de-Domecame - were in 1952 and Italy's Fausto Coppi won all three on his way to winning his second Tour. The Galibier is the most climbed mountain and, to mark the 100th anniversary of its first crossing in 2011, it boasted the highest altitude finish in Tour history at 2,645m.
N is for narrowest victory.
Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds to win his second Tour title in 1989. LeMond, who in 1985 became the first non-European to win the race, started the final stage, a 24km time trial into Paris, 50 seconds behind home favourite Fignon, but powered to victory aided by triathlon handlebars and aerodynamic helmet.
O is for oldest rider.
Henri Paret was 50 years 215 days when he embarked upon the 1904 race. The youngest was Macel Kerff, who was 17 years 49 days when he competed in the inaugural race one year earlier.
P is for Paris.
The French capital and host to every Tour finish. Since 1975, the race has always ended on the Champs-Elysees. Britain's Mark Cavendish (see 'S is for sprinter') is the only man to win the closing stage in Paris three times - 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Belgian Merckx set records in the 1960s and 70s that are proving tough to match
Q is for quickest stage.
In 2005, Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel team completed the 67.5km team time trial from Tours to Blois (see 'T is for time trials') at an average speed of 57.324 km/h. 2005 was also the year of the quickest overall race - 3,608km were covered in an average of 41.193km/h. The slowest average speed was 23.341km/h over the 5,425km route in 1924.
R is for records.
Belgium's Eddy Merckx holds the record for most stage wins (34), most days spent in the yellow jersey (96) and, in 1969, he became the only rider to win the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys (see 'J is for jersey') in the same race. If the white jersey had been around, he would have won that too.
S is for sprinters.
The powerhouses of the race, they shine on the flatter stages and toil in the mountains. Britain's Mark Cavendish is the best in the world and claimed the green jersey last year for winning the most points. Cavendish, who will be making his Tour debut for Team Sky in 2012, has won 20 stages in four previous editions. His chief rivals? Peter Sagan of Liquigas, Andre Greipel of Lotto and Katusha's Oscar Freire.
T is for time trials.
There are three, including the short opening prologue, on this year's Tour and they could go a long way to helping decide who wins the race. The two main time trials are a 41.5km stage at the start of the second week and a 53.5km ride on the penultimate stage of the race. The climbing specialists quickly find out if they gained enough time in the mountains to hold off the time-triallers. France's Jacques Anquetil, the first five-time winner of the Tour, built his victories on his ability to ride alone against the clock.
U is for United States.
Before 1985, every winner of the Tour de France had come from Europe. Greg LeMond of the United States changed all that and he went on to win three Tours in total before his countryman Lance Armstrong surpassed that (see 'A is for Armstrong'). American George Hincapie is riding in his 17th Tour this year, setting a new record. Australia's Cadel Evans, who
won last year's race,
is the only other non-European winner.
Riding in the mountains
V is for Ventoux.
The gruelling 22km mountain climb has become one of the Tour greats. Geologically in the Alps, Ventoux is actually in Provence. The road is often closed due to high wind and speeds of 200mph have been recorded at the summit. Ventoux achieved notoriety when Britain's 1965 road race world champion Tom Simpson died on the mountain during the 1967 Tour. He collapsed less than one mile from the summit after falling off and being put back on his bike.
W is for Wiggins.
Britain's Bradley Wiggins has won the
Tour de Romandie
Criterium du Dauphine
races in an already sparkling year. He has a best finish of fourth in 2009 but crashed out with a broken collarbone last year. Will he become the first British winner of the Tour? We will let you know on Sunday, 22 July.
X is for X-rays.
In 2010, Fabian Cancellara's bike was X-rayed to make sure he had not secreted a tiny motor inside the frame of his bike. The seven-time Switzerland champion had comfortably won the prologue but his was not the only bike to be checked. Among the 13 others, David Zabriskie's bike was X-rayed, prompting his Garmin team director
"They didn't find a motor, but they did find an old 8 track of the Eagles."
Y is for yellow.
The colour of the most important jersey in the race. France's Jacques Anquetil was the first to win five Tours - the last in 1964 - while Belgium's Eddy Merckx (see 'R is for record') matched that in 1974. Spain's Miguel Indurain was the first to win five successive Tours in 1995 - a feat since surpassed by Lance Armstrong (see 'A is for Armstrong'). Why yellow? L'Auto (see 'I is for idea') was printed on yellow paper. Eugene Christophe was the first to wear yellow in the 1919 edition of the race.
Z is for Zabel.
Erik Zabel won the green points jersey in six consecutive years from 1996 to 2001. He is regarded as one of Germany's finest cyclists and the greatest of their sprinters. Zabel won 12 Tour de France stages.