The Tour is nowadays contested by professional teams backed by commercial sponsors, but the event began as a race for individuals; slipstreaming and other team tactics were initially savagely condemned by Desgrange, and he only accepted their inevitability during the 1920s. Even when commercial cycling teams had become commonplace in other events, the Tour was contested by national teams for several years during the 1950s and early 1960s.
Most stages take place in France though it is very common to have a few stages in nearby countries, such as Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany as well as non-neighbouring countries such as the Republic of Ireland, United Kingdom (visited in 1974 and 1994) and the Netherlands. The three weeks usually includes two rest days, which are sometimes used to transport the riders long distances between stages.
In recent years, the first stage had been preceded by a short individual time trial (1 to 15 km), called the prologue. This was scrapped in 2005, with the presumption that future editions will see the prologue reinstated. The traditional finish is in Paris on the Champs-Élysées. During the Tour, various stages occur, including a number of mountain stages, individual time trials and a team time trial. The remaining stages are held over relatively flat terrain. With the variety of stages, sprinters may win stages, but the overall winner is almost always a master of the mountain stages and time trials.
The itinerary the race changes each year and alternates between clockwise and anti-clockwise direction around France. (For example, the most recent Tour (2005) was a clockwise direction Tour - visiting the Alpes first and then the Pyrenees. Next year's race can be expected to visit those two mountain ranges in the reverse order.) Some of the visited places, especially mountains and passes, recur almost annually and are famous on their own. The most famous mountains are those in the hors-categorie (peaks where the difficulty in climbing is beyond categorization), including the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, Col du Galibier, the Hautacam and Alpe d'Huez. Although the tour is often won in the mountain stages, the length and variety of terrain ensures that only an all-round rider can win the race. (A notable exception in recent years being the late Marco Pantani, the winner in 1998, who was a mountain climbing specialist.)
Other major stage races include the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) and the Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain). The Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and World Cycling Championship constitute the Triple Crown of Cycling.
Since 1984 there has been a Tour de France for women, La Grande Boucle Féminine Internationale or simply Le Tour Féminin.
Generally a colored jersey is associated with each prize. The current holder of the prize is required to wear the jersey when racing. If a single rider is entitled to wear more than one jersey (for example, both overall leader and King of the Mountains), he wears the most prestigious one with the second place holder in the category wearing the other.