Tour de France: Drugs, assassins and the Tashkent Tornado

The world's best cyclists begin the punishing Tour de France this week – but did you know that the first stage will take place in Holland? Simon O'Hagan has all the (surprising) facts and figures about cycling's biggest event...
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The Independent Online

A is for Armstrong

We thought we'd seen the last of Lance Armstrong – winner of a record seven Tours – when he retired in 2005. But the chippy Texan and all-round miracle man who beat cancer and gave the world the yellow wristband can't resist rubbing up the French the wrong way. Finished third on his return last year, and is back again in 2010 with a new, self-assembled team, RadioShack.

B is for Brits

No British rider has ever won the Tour. But last year saw our equal best performance when Bradley Wiggins finished fourth. Now Wiggins, a 30-year-old beanpole from north London, has joined Sky, the first British team to enter the Tour for many years. The plan is to replicate on the road Britain's recent success in track cycling. But it won't be easy.

C is for Contador

Spain's Alberto Contador is the man to beat. He won the Tour in 2007 and again last year but he's a quiet type whose deeds don't stir the soul. C is also for Mark Cavendish, Britain's sprint sensation. Unfortunately he's not a member of the Sky team. It's also for the Champs-Elysées, where the Tour always finishes, and the cobbled tracks of the Forest of Arenberg in northern France which the riders will have to bump along on day three.

D is for drugs

Rarely does a Tour go by without a drugs scandal, and blood-doping is a probably ineradicable part of pro cycling culture. Which is not to say they are all at it by any means, and every year brings fresh hope the Tour will be clean. Look out for tut-tutting over two big names – Italy's Ivan Basso and the Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov, both back and winning again after serving drug-related bans.

E is for the Etape du Tour

Every year a mountain stage of the Tour is chosen for amateurs to have a crack at, 8,000 of them toiling their way across a 200km stretch of the Alps or Pyrenees. The typical Etaper is a forty-something male metrosexual for whom a really nice bike and a huge climb is what gives life meaning.

F is for Fignon

The closest finish in Tour history was in 1989 when France's Laurent Fignon was pipped by the American Greg Lemond by a mere eight seconds; so remarkable a climax was it that the bespectacled Fignon is remembered more as a nearly man than as the winner of the Tour in 1983 and 1984. Now battling cancer, he published a wonderful memoir last year, Nous Etions Jeunes et Insouciants (We Were Young and Carefree), which is just out in English.

G is for Garin Maurice

Garin won the first ever Tour in 1903. Born in Italy in 1871, he had a peripatetic childhood, which included working as a chimney sweep in Reims. His Tour win earned him 3,000 francs. He died in Lens in 1957.

H is for Hinault Bernard

Hinault was the more recent Frenchman to win the Tour, his fifth victory coming in 1985. That a quarter of a century has passed without France producing a Tour champion is one of the reasons why the event's place in French life is not quite what it was.

I is for Indurain Miguel

Indurain was a tall, remote Spaniard with an unfeasibly low-resting heart rate who won the Tour five times between 1991 and 1995. Four men are level on five victories each (two behind Armstrong): Indurain, Hinault plus Frenchman Jacques Anquetil (late 1950s to early 1960s) and the Belgian Eddy Merckx (late 1960s and early 1970s).

J is for jerseys

Yellow for the overall leader, green for the best sprinter, polka dot for the best climber, and white for the best young rider (under the age of 25).

K is for Kraftwerk

Pioneering 1970s German electronica band whose referencing of cycling has made them firm favourites among followers of the sport. Their 1983 single "Tour de France" reached No 22 in the UK charts. Last year they performed in the Manchester Velodrome while members of the UK cycling team sped round the track.

L is for Lapize

In 1910, the Tour organisers included the Pyrenees for the first time. It was an act of sadism that prompted Frenchman Octave Lapize to utter what became the most famous quote in Tour history. "Assassins!" he shouted at officials on scaling the fearsome Col du Tourmalet. To mark the Tourmalet's centenary, riders will this year go up it not once but twice.

M is for Millar

The only Briton apart from Bradley Wiggins to finish as high as fourth in the Tour was Scotsman Robert Millar in 1984. No relation of seasoned fellow Brit David Millar, a regular in the Tour over the past decade.

N is for nicknames

Best ones: "The Cannibal" (Merckx), "The Badger" (Hinault), "The Pirate" (Marco Pantani), "The Tashkent Tornado" (Djamolidine Abdoujaparov), "The Eagle of Toledo" (Federico Bahamontes).

O is for Oscar

The most original and enchanting cycling film ever made, the 2003 animation classic Belleville Rendezvous, in which three Tour riders are kidnapped mid-race, garnered two Oscar nominations.

P is for podium

The same ritual is followed at the end of every stage when the winner mounts a podium, receives a large bunch of flowers and is kissed by a pair of pretty young women. In motor racing, it would be champagne instead of flowers. But the cyclist's body is a temple.

Q is for queuing

Nowhere are the crowds greater than in the Alps, and there is a particularly strong tradition of Dutch and Belgian fans setting up camp days in advance. On no account attempt to drive up the mountain on the day of the race unless you want to spend it in a traffic jam.

R is for Rotterdam

The Tour's habit of starting beyond France's border is growing. It's only three years since London hosted Le Grand Depart and this year the honour goes to Rotterdam. Qatar, Tokyo and New York have all been mooted as possible start cities in future years. R is also for Stephen Roche, the only Irish rider to win the Tour, in 1987.

S is for sponsors

The Tour may not be sponsored but every team (22 this year, with up to nine cyclists in each) carries its sponsors' name. Financial services feature prominently – Rabobank, Saxo Bank, Caisse d'Epargne, Cofidis, and Ag2r are five of the longest-established backers.

T is for time trial

Not every stage is a straight race involving the entire field. There are also time trials (two this year) in which riders set off at intervals and race on their own against the clock. Often crucial in determining the final outcome.

U is for uphill

Climbing is what the Tour is really all about. Every Tour takes in the Alps and the Pyrenees, sometimes the Massif Central as well. The best climber rarely wins the Tour. But you can't win the Tour if you're not a good climber.

V is for Ventoux

Mont Ventoux in Provence is a challenge unique among Tour mountains, on account of its length, steepness and inhospitable terrain. It was on the sun-baked barren moonscape of its upper slopes that Britain's Tom Simpson collapsed and died during the 1967 Tour.

W is for Winnebago

Preferred mode of transport for fans. A satellite dish, your own kitchen, and a good pitch at the side of the road are all any Tour devotee could wish for.

X is for X-ray

The one that showed Lance Armstrong had not broken his elbow when he crashed a few weeks ago and which cleared the way for his tilt at an eighth Tour win.

Y is for yellow

Why is the yellow jersey yellow? Because yellow was the colour of the pages of L'Auto – the sports newspaper that the first Tour was intended to promote.

Z is for Zoetemelk

Joop Zoetemelk was the most recent Dutchman to win the Tour – in 1980. The Tour has been won by cyclists from France (36 times), Belgium (18), Spain (12), the US (10), Italy (9), Luxembourg (4), Holland (2), Switzerland (2), Denmark (1), Germany (1), and Ireland (1).