Now that we’ve covered how teams work, let’s look at how exactly one wins a stage race. In most stage races, it’s not just the guy who comes in first at the end of the stage who gets honors. The fastest guy, the best climber, the best young rider, the best team, etc, all get prizes as well.
The highest honor of the race, of course, goes to the one who finishes first. But what does it mean to finish “first” when a race lasts multiple days? In the end, the guy on the top step of the podium is the one with the lowest cumulative race time- the one who rides the course the fastest. It’s not the guy who wins the most stages. In fact, often the race winner wins no stages! The rider with the lowest cumulative time wears the leader’s jersey. In the Tour, this jersey is yellow, and the color most often associated with a leader’s jersey, but it can be any color. For the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy), it is pink, and for the Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain), it is red.
It is a lot of work to keep and defend the leader’s jersey. There are many tactics employed to make sure the yellow jersey stays in the team, but the bottom line is that the rider in leader’s jersey must keep a close eye on those finishing the the stage ahead of him. If there is a someone who is only 30 seconds behind him, the leader must not let that rider finish 31 seconds in front of him or else he will lose the leader’s jersey. This is why it is hard to be in the leader’s jersey- that team must constantly be monitoring who’s attacking, who’s in the break, who’s at the head of the peloton, etc, and often the pressure is on them to chase back any escapees.
In the stage races, there are more jerseys to be won than just the leader’s jersey. Most stage races will have a points jersey, a climbing jersey, and a best young rider jersey.
The points jersey is worn by the rider with the most points. To accumulate points, a rider must one of the first, usually, 15-20 riders through certain lines on the course, with one of those lines being the finish line. Points are awarded in descending value, based on when the rider crosses the line- so the first rider gets the most points and the 20th rider gets the least. This jersey is most commonly known as the sprinter’s jersey, as traditionally the majority of the points are given out at the finish line and the flatter stages (which favors sprinters) have more points available to win at the finish. So, the rider who can win the most flat stages often has the best chance at wearing the sprinter’s jersey. This isn’t always the case, as points awarded at the intermediate sprints in the middle of the route can play an important role in deciding who wears the jersey. But in the end, the sprinter’s jersey (the green jersey at the Tour) is meant to go to the fastest rider.
The climbing jersey is commonly called the King of the Mountains jersey, or KOM. It’s awarded the same way the sprinter’s jersey is, with points awarded to those crossing the summit of different climbs. Climbs are ranked from 4 (easiest) to 1 (hardest), but some are SO HARD that they receive a Hors Categorie (HC, or outside category) distinction. Obviously, the highest ranked climbs will have the most points available for the taking.
The young rider’s jersey is pretty self-explanatory- it goes to the rider under 26 with the lowest cumulative race time, signified by a white jersey.
There are also a couple of prizes awarded that don’t have a special jersey. Each stage a rider is awarded the most aggressive rider prize- this could be someone who worked hard in the break, made a last ditch attack, powered through the worst crash, etc. They get a special red race number for the day. At the end of the race, one rider is awarded the overall most aggressive rider prize.
The other prize awarded is the team classification. This award goes to the team with the overall lowest cumulative time. There is no special jersey, but they get yellow race numbers.