When I was in seventh grade, on my bike, I started racing cars downhill to school and racing friends uphill home. It was fun, but I was looking for ways to get stronger and make my bike faster, and that meant looking around at bike information, because I didn’t know any cyclists. I had heard that an American was set to ride the Tour. That American, Jonathan Boyer, led a mythically difficult life. Word had it he lived in a closet in his team’s headquarters when he first started racing in Europe, had nearly died from a crash, used acupuncture to recuperate from training, spoke fluent French, was called Jacques, and few even knew he was American. He was on the team of French great Bernard Hinault, and his job was to help Hinault in the mountains. I had no idea what any of this meant, but I liked the idea of riding insanely long distances through all sorts of conditions. The few pictures I saw of the Tour showed ­people with intense stares, beautiful bikes, and crazy outfits, riding frighteningly close to one another through incredible places. Exotic, romantic, brutal, epic; all good.

I had to know more. Whenever someone dressed like a European bike racer—I ­didn’t even know there were bike races in the United States—passed on the road, I tried to follow them. It must have amused the cyclists; a kid on a clunky, too big, 40-pound bike trying to keep up. Over the years, I’ve likely become that cyclist.

Today, thanks to the internet, it’s so much easier. Back then, the fastest way to find out about the Tour was to figure out what newsstand carried a French newspaper, and go daily during the tour. If you wanted to read about it in English, you’d have to wait weeks for VeloNews’ abbreviated coverage or month’s for Bicycling’s even shorter treatment. Maybe the distance helped with the romance, always being so far away meant we had to dream what happened between the huge gaps in coverage.

With this book, my hope is to provide context for the Tour. I’ve broken down the world of the race into its most basic elements, and once they are introduced and explained, have added more complex elements, until you can understand and enjoy the race not as an outsider, but as a fan—as if you grew up with the Tour around you, a racer in the family, with a few trips to see the Tour pass through your region, and maybe even a chance meeting of Anquetil or Merckx.