The Tour de France is the biggest bike racing show of the year. Great to watch on TV but also, if you happen to be nearby, worth watching pass by in real life. It’s an unforgettable experience.
The Tour de France is without doubt the biggest bike race there is. For three weeks every year, the world turns towards France. During the race, we enjoy watching the peleton passing beautiful locations, the tough racing is at times truly heroic, and it’s impressive to see how quickly the riders are prepared to talk to journalists, even after a mountain-top finish. This is true theatre, which is great to watch. But if you call yourself a real fan, and you just happen to be on holiday during the Tour de France, give yourself a break and visit a stage from the roadside.
To be honest, the best stages to visit are the mountain stages, especially towards the end of a stage. When there’s a group of breakaway riders, an attacking group of elite GC riders breathing down their necks, and the peleton containing the heavy-limbed sprinters desperately fighting to get over the line before the time limit, there’s some great roadside entertainment to be had.
The only major disadvantage of this type of stage is logistics. The roads approaching the mountains are often jam-packed so unless you want to cycle up there yourself (and even then the police may order you dismount to walk) you must be prepared to wait a long time. And after the whole circus has passed, you will have to wait quite a while until the roads are opened and you can leave the mountain.
If you’re not really prepared to spend a day in the burning hot sun and get stressed from all the waiting, then a sprint stage is also great to experience and a bit easier to deal with. Picking a spot is also less complicated. You work out which local road is earmarked as part of the course, park the car half a kilometer away so you have plenty of space to park and later drive away easily and walk to the route. Be there a good hour before the peleton is due to pass. This can usually be found in the local press.
I’ve visited the Tour twice. Once when I was about 8 years old, and the second time in my early 30s. The first time was particularly magical, standing next to my parents alongside the road. Firstly, the people around you are all super-friendly. And when I was a little older and could speak a little French, I was even randomly invited to join a family during lunch. The French people you meet watching the Tour de France are the friendliest French people you will ever meet.
The second high-point is the Tour’s publicity caravan. This carnival parade of bizarre vehicles follows the Tour route well ahead of the riders. Colourfully decorated cars whiz past (they have to drive fast to keep ahead of the racers) and throw free stuff at the crowd. Everyone, especially kids, dive on these mostly worthless knickknacks to take home as souvenirs. You then have at least proof that you were there.
After the caravan has passed, quiet follows and tension builds. You know that the riders are nearby. And then you see the first motorbikes looming in the distance, they get closer and after they have passed by, the small lead group passes. Woosh, woosh, woosh and they’re gone. Then silence for a couple of minutes and more motorbikes and the peleton. In roughly 20 seconds the entire colourful mass of bikes and shirts has passed. It happened really quickly, but the entire experience is not to be missed — neither as small kid, nor as an adult!