Each of the Tour de France teams comprises a diverse group of riders each serving a specific role in the team.
If you’re new to the sport, you might think that every rider would have the same objective in a Grand Tour: to win. This would be a reasonable assumption – it is called a “race” after all!
However, road cycling is a deeply tactical team sport where each member serves a specific function and may have a different objective.
These different functions have specific names and usually, the Grand Tour teams will include a wide range of them. Each role has characteristic physical and psychological attributes associated with it, that might make a rider particularly well-suited to a specific role.
But what are these physical and psychological attributes? And why do Tour de France teams need specific roles anyway?
To answer these questions and much more, in we’ll be covering:
- Putting Together A Tour De France Team
- General Classification Contenders
- Time-Trial Specialists
- Lead-Out Riders
Ready for the lowdown on the roles within Tour de France teams?
Let’s get started!
Putting Together a tour de France team
Every Tour de France team is comprised of eight riders.
Every team will be looking to make sure that they have a well-rounded group of riders. In order to achieve this, they need to draft a diverse range of cyclists with different roles and riding styles.
Some are absolute specialists in a certain type of riding, while others might take up a more tactical or supporting position in the team.
Each member of the team is there to serve a specific purpose. Some might not get the limelight afforded to their team leaders, but they play a vital role in the team’s strategy for the race.
There are four different classifications to compete for at the Tour de France, each represented by a different jersey for the leader. While the strongest teams might build a team with the intention of challenging for every jersey, smaller teams might concentrate their focus on one classification – or even just focus on chasing individual stage victories.
The four jerseys on offer are:
- Yellow Jersey (General Classification)
- Polka-Dot Jersey (King of the Mountains)
- Green Jersey (Points Classification)
- White Jersey (Young Rider Classification)
If you’re interested in finding out more, check out our Ultimate Tour De France Jerseys Guide here!
General Classification Contenders
The General Classification (GC) is the contest that decides the overall Tour winner. It is decided by adding together a rider’s combined finishing times for every stage of the Tour, with the lowest overall time taking the victory.
The GC leader at the beginning of each stage wears the famous yellow jersey.
The GC contenders are the cream-of-the-crop; the best all-rounders in the sport. To be a genuine contender for overall Tour de France victory, a rider has to be a solid performer in all of the disciplines of road cycling, and excel in several of them.
The Tour de France is almost always won and lost in the mountains – so the most important element of a GC contender’s skillset is climbing. They’re often slightly taller and heavier than the pure climbers, but they can still compete with the best of them. It’s a common sight to see the GC contenders break the rest of the peloton and streak away to victory on the toughest mountain stages.
GC contenders also need to be extremely solid time-trialers. The Tour may often be won in the mountains, but it can just as easily be lost in an individual time trial. Some of the most iconic and dramatic victories in the history of the Tour de France have seen a lead overhauled by the finest of margins in a late time trial.
GC contenders are typically the team leaders. This means they’re the team’s “protected rider”, who the rest of their teammates ride in support of and – if necessary – sacrifice their own prospects for.
If the team leader is struggling on a climb, the rest of the team will drop back to pace them up to the pack. If the leader’s bike has a mechanical failure, a teammate will surrender theirs.
There have been some incredible GC riders over the years, but some who stand out are the prolific yellow-jersey grabbers. Eddy Merckx is arguably the most successful male road cyclist in history, having won five separate Tours de France, sharing the title for the king of the men’s Tour with Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and Jacques Antequil.
More recently, however, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome might stand out as some of the best GC riders. But in the modern game, the younger riders are taking the headlines. Tadej Pogačar had won two Tours by the age of 22, and Jonas Vigegaard won the 2022 edition of the Tour at age 25.
Grimpeurs – French for “climbers” – are the mountain goats of the peloton.
They’re typically small and lightweight riders, capable of fast accelerations up steep inclines to shake off their competition and produce incredibly exciting attacks and breakaways on the biggest mountain climbs. In these stages, there is not much point in drafting due to the low speeds, and the pacing is everything, something a grimpeur needs to excel at.
Grimpeurs can often cross over to become GC contenders in their own right if they develop into decent all-rounders. Some of the greatest Grand Tour winners of all time, such as Fausto Coppi, could be considered grimpeurs first and foremost.
However, out-and-out grimpeurs often struggle in time trials, meaning they have a hard time competing for overall Tour victories.
If a grimpeur is not a GC contender themselves, they’ll often play a tactical role on mountain stages, either pacing their team leader up the climbs or leading attacks on rival GC contenders. They might also prioritize individual stage wins if their team has fallen out of contention for the major honors.
The polka-dot jersey is awarded to the leader of the Mountains Classification, with points awarded for summiting categorized climbs in the first few positions. Because of the importance of climbing to the General Classification, it’s not uncommon for the yellow jersey and polka-dot jersey to be won by the same rider.
Famous grimpeurs include Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet, Marco Pantani, and Pierre Rolland.
Sprinters have just one purpose: a devastating burst of pace to win stages that end in a bunch finish. They usually will be aiming to take as many sprint stages as possible, as well as the green jersey for the Points Classification.
Sprinters are normally among the heaviest riders and have strong, large builds with lots of fast-twitch muscle. This allows them to generate huge surges of power and accelerate to extremely impressive speeds for short amounts of time.
On flat stages, sprinters will try to stick with the bunch and compete for a favorable position in the peloton to attack the final bunch sprint. They typically become one of their team’s “protected riders” for these stages, with the team working to deliver them to the finish in the best condition possible.
On the mountain stages, however, the challenge is to merely make the time cut to allow them to continue to the end of the Tour. The most successful sprinters need to have at least some climbing ability, as failure to finish a mountain stage disqualifies them from any flat stages later in the Tour.
Because of their sole focus on individual stage victories, the best sprinters rank among the most successful Tour riders of all time. The great “Manx Missile” Mark Cavendish won four stages at the 2021 Tour de France, taking his total to 34 and equalling Eddy Merckx’s record for Tour de France stage victories.
The domestiques – French for “servants” – are any riders on the team working to support the team leader(s), rather than chasing victory for themselves.
Their role can include allowing the team leader to draft behind them, delivering them food and water, protecting them in the jostling peloton, pacing them up climbs, or leading attacks or driving the peloton’s pace to attack the leader’s rivals.
The richest teams may have multiple riders capable of competing for the Tour victory for themselves, but they’ll normally focus their attention on supporting just one for the best chance of victory. In this case, the other big-name teammates are sometimes called super-domestiques.
Some riders make a career out of being an utterly indispensable domestique if their attributes are unsuited to competing for Grand Tour victories themselves. They might be a great climber but a terrible time trialist, for example, or a diesel powerhouse perfectly suited to driving the pace of the peloton from the front for long periods of time, controlling the race (Tim “El Tractor” Declercq is a great example).
Others are young GC prospects serving their time as super-domestiques before being allowed a crack at Tour victory for themselves – which can lead to tension and fractures within a team with clashing ambitions.
Famous examples include Greg LeMond acting as domestique for Bernard Hinault in 1985 before beating him to the yellow jersey himself the following year, and then-domestique Chris Froome’s infamous attack on team leader Bradley Wiggins on Stage 11 of the 2012 Tour.
- Check out our Complete Guide to Domestique Cycling here!
A rouleur is another all-rounder, someone who is a solid performer in most elements of road cycling, but perhaps doesn’t particularly excel at any of them. “Rouleur” literally translates to “roller” and can be given as a compliment to your riding mates!
A rouleur would usually play a tactical role in the team as a domestique, and they’re often among the most combative riders in the peloton, leading attacks and breakaways. Their versatility is their key attribute, as they can perform a range of duties in support of the leader. They can also target individual stage wins, particularly as part of a breakaway.
Famous rouleurs include Jens Voigt, George Hincapie, Bernhard Eisel, and Johnny Hoogerland.
A puncheur is a rider who is best suited to courses with rolling hills. A relatively flat course with short, sharp, “punchy” climbs is normally an ideal playground for a puncher.
Many puncheurs start out in cyclocross, which is perfectly suited to them due to the repeated short, steep climbs typical of a cyclocross circuit.
Lots of fast-twitch muscle allows them to get up those sharp climbs, but they might be a bit lighter and less powerful than their sprinting teammates. They also might not excel on the longer climbs of the Tour, since their endurance and recovery are usually not as good as that of a GC contender.
They could make excellent time trialists though since time trials usually take place on courses well-suited to a puncheur. Many one-day Classics specialists could also be described as punchers.
At a Grand Tour, they’re likely to act as domestiques to a GC contender. Like rouleurs, they’re often among the most aggressive riders, leading breakaways or attacking climbs to force their leader’s rivals to expend precious energy chasing them down.
Famous puncheurs include Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe, and more recently Wout Van Aert or Tom Pidcock (although he may end up being a GC contender if his stunning victory on Alpe d’Huez is anything to go by!).
A time-trial specialist is excellent at pacing their efforts, sustaining consistent power output for an extended period, and holding incredibly aerodynamically efficient riding positions. They need to be able to ride without drafting on a relatively flat course very well.
Time trials require similar attributes to those of rouleurs and puncheurs, so there’s often some overlap between the three. Outside of time trials, they tend to act as domestiques for the team leader.
Famous time-trial specialists include Tony Martin and Felipe Ganna – dubbed the “best time-trialist in the world”.
A lead-out rider will stick with the sprinter for the whole race, allowing them to draft on their wheel and conserve their energy for the final sprint. They normally will be the final stage of the “lead-out train”, building immense speed for their sprinter who can then launch out of their draft in the final meters.
You could consider them the chief domestique to the sprinter.
Lead-out riders need to be excellent sprinters in their own right to understand the tactics of a bunch finish and generate the blistering speeds required to act as a launchpad for their designated sprinter.
Perhaps the most renowned lead-out man is Mark Renshaw, who formed a dominant partnership with Mark Cavendish, moving with him between several different teams.