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Tour de France Spectator Tips

While the Tour de France is primarily the cycling world’s premier race, it’s also one of the biggest spectator sporting events in the world each year. So whether you’re interested in cycling or just happen to be traveling through France in July, you may want to see what the fuss is all about. Here, then, are some tips for watching the Tour de France.

Tour de France Tips

The atmosphere surrounding the Tour de France is really something to behold, and at times it can feel like it has very little to do with the actual race or the riders. The start towns buzz with anticipation (and the party usually continues long after the riders depart), the finishing towns party long into the night (after watching that day’s winner bask in the glow of his victory), and all along the route locals set up picnics at the roadsides and make a day’s outing of the whole thing.
They’ll bring transistor radios to their picnic spots, or show up in camper-vans equipped with TVs and satellite dishes so they can keep up with the progress of the race as it gets closer to their position and then follow what happens after the riders zoom by. It’s an incredibly social vibe, and if you know a little French and have the makings of your own picnic lunch you just might make a bunch of new friends by the day’s end!
A few things to know if you’re making a day of it and waiting for the race to come to you:

  • Rent a Car – Unfortunately, if you want to get beyond most of the starting and finishing towns into the mountains (where it is, in my opinion, way more fun to watch the race), you’re going to need to rent a car. Most of the mountain stages go over remote passes on roads where you won’t find train lines and where buses don’t go. Cycling fans will want to make the investment to rent a car and navigate to the best viewing spots; if you’re not that bothered about the very best viewing then you won’t need to rent a car. Just find an easily-accessible town along the route and join the throngs of locals out to watch the riders go by.
  • Look Out for the Caravan – Roughly 45-60 minutes before the riders come through you’ll see what’s known as the “caravan” come through the race route. It’s a weird parade of sponsor vehicles, most of which have goodies to throw to spectators. These goodies can include candy, cheese, keychains, hats, and other random souvenir junk. If you’re in a big crowd, you’ll have to get aggressive to get anything – but if you’re in a place where there aren’t as many spectators you stand a better chance of coming away with some useless crap to haul around fun things to take home. And as if the opportunity to get things thrown at you wasn’t enticing enough, many of the sponsors now have a truck with dancing girls in it (such as the ladies in the photo) as part of their caravan.
  • Look for Helicopters – You can get an idea of where the riders are as they approach by keeping one eye turned toward the sky, because there are TV-camera-wielding helicopters which hover over the race as it moves through the country. As the helicopters get closer, you’ll know the cyclists are getting closer, too.
  • Mountain Passes May Close to Cars – If you’re renting a car and hoping to get a prime viewing position on any of the mountain passes, be aware that often times local law enforcement will close the roads to drivers as early as the day before the race comes through. The timing of this can be arbitrary (for instance, when there’s no more space to park cars alongside the roads) or set well in advance, but either way you’ll need to have a plan B if you don’t make the cutoff and you get turned around. Usually you can find a place further down the mountain to park and camp out for the night, and then walk up the hill in the morning to stake out a place to watch the race that day.
  • Don’t Get in the Way – On most mountain passes, there aren’t any barriers separating the athletes from the spectators – something that’s basically unheard of in any other big sporting event – but it’s really important that you make sure you’re not in the riders’ path as they’re coming up the road. Riders have been knocked off their bikes by spectators, and you really don’t want to be that person. Nor do you want to be one of the people who like to run alongside the riders just to get their 15 minutes of TV fame… Just watch the race, folks. If you want to be in it, get your ass on a bike and start training.
  • Find a Local Bar with a TV – Can’t get up to the mountain for the big race? Not in the right part of France to see it in person? Don’t worry. Plenty of French people are in the same situation. As you’re walking around any French town during the Tour de France, just poke your head into a bar or cafe to see if they’ve got a TV that’s tuned into the race. Then buy a refreshing beverage, find a seat, and enjoy the spectacle the way most people in the country do – via the television.

One final tip – these guys move fast. It’s not like watching a marathon go by. The whole thing is usually over in less than a minute (unless you’re on a mountain stage, in which case it’s a little bit slower). If you’re looking to take pictures of the cyclists as they go by, you’d do well to practice a bit beforehand with your camera, preferably by taking pictures of cars speeding by.
original photos, top to bottom, by: Niels ten Have and .kol tregaskes