- Seeing the Tour de France in person should be on everyone’s bucket list.
- Three weeks long, colourful, and fast, it’s called the world’s greatest race for a reason … and then there’s all that delicious food and drink.
- If you go, there are some things you should consider doing – and some things you should definitely avoid – to make the most of your Tour.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
FRANCE – Everyone should go see the Tour de France. It’s unlike anything else.
Forget that it’s the world’s largest annual sporting event and the greatest bicycle race. It’s also a delicious party.
It’s hard to mess up a visit to the Tour, so just go. But a few tips might make the experience a little easier and a lot more fun.
Here are our best bits of advice for anyone going to see the race in person.
Go to the mountains.
On the flatter stages, the riders fly by so fast it’s a whizzing blur. Instead, opt for the mountain stages, on which the riders will likely be strung out single file in small groups and going (relatively) slower as they labour up the steep gradients.
Whereas on the flats the peloton of 176 riders could shoot by in less than a minute, on the hardest mountain stages there could be over a half hour between the leader and the last rider.
On the biggest mountain stages, which feature several high summits, you’ll want to be on the penultimate or final climb, near the summit (but perhaps not at the very top, since it can’t get packed with spectators and crowd barriers can limit your movement).
The main mountain regions in the Tour de France are the Alps and Pyrenees. Our favourite climb is Alpe d’Huez – a massive party – but each Tour features different climbs, so be sure to check the Tour website for the general route when it’s announced in October and the detailed stage maps published in May.
Go to the Grand Départ for the sheer spectacle.
Yes, skip most of the flat stages, but consider going to the Grand Départ, the “big start.” This is the festive opening weekend of the Tour when the buzz around the race is highest. Two days before the first stage, you’ll get to see all the teams presented and tip a glass with the locals in the party atmosphere.
The Tour starts in a different city every year, but you can always count on the host going all out to welcome the Tour. Often the first two or three stages start and finish in or near the same city, so you can base yourself in a single area without having to move around so much.
Eat and drink local.
Skip the supermarkets and fast-food chains and seek out what’s good in the region. Hit the local market or bakery instead.
France is known for its delicious food and drink, so try the specialties. And don’t overthink it: Some days it could just mean a quick stop for picnic favourites like local cheeses, fresh baguettes, sausages, fruit, olives, chocolate, wine, whatever you crave.
In Belgium, we hit up a food truck for the best frites with mayo we’ve ever had and washed it down with a cold Leffe. When in Rome.
Skip the starts and finishes.
Don’t bother going to the stage starts or finishes, unless you really, really want to.
If you’re driving, traffic and parking can be a headache, and you’ll need to arrive quite early. Most likely you’ll need a special pass to get close to the area where the riders are (though you can see them from a distance) as well as into the “start village,” a large VIP area for ticket holders, the well-heeled, local celebrities, and the town mayor.
Ditto with the finishes, where public access can be limited and the crowds intense.
Go the third week.
Probably the best stages to see the Tour are in the third week, when the race hits the high mountains proper. The Tour alternates from year to year, clockwise and counterclockwise around France, so you’ll be heading to either the Alps or the Pyrenees.
The last week is the toughest leg for the riders, as it features several major mountain passes, and it’s where the race is decided. The best climb for spectating is Alpe d’Huez, but the race visits different climbs each year, so check the route to see which climbs are in and which are out when you go.
Arrive early, leave late.
Wherever and whenever you go, arrive at your desired spot along the course hours ahead of the race. If driving, know that the roads are often closed early in the morning, so strike out very early in the a.m. or just show up the night before and camp. On the most popular climbs, crowds can swell to 10 deep roadside. Die-hard fans arrive a day or two before.
One popular option is to arrive at the base of your chosen climb in the morning, hike up to a good spot, enjoy your picnic and neighbours, and wait for the race. The Tour website has helpful information about when (to the very minute) the riders are expected to pass each point along the stage. Use it to plan your day.
And don’t bother trying to leave right after the riders pass. You’ll just find yourself stuck in traffic. Wait till the race clears out and the crowds disperse.
Stay out of the road, and don’t touch the riders.
Newbies to the Tour, and to bike racing generally, are often shocked at how fast the riders come by. It’s much faster than you’d expect. Really. So while it hopefully goes without saying, don’t stand in the road, even a little. Stay off to the side.
Also, riders don’t like to be touched, and they don’t like to be pushed. Cheer all you want, but keep your hands to yourself. And don’t run alongside the riders. It puts you both in danger.
Bonus: Don’t bother trying to take photos of the riders. Unless you really know what you’re doing, your pictures will probably not turn out well at all. Just lose yourself in the frenzy of the moment. There will be plenty of photos to look at later. You travelled all that way to see the riders with your own eyes, anyway.
Finish in style on the Champs.
Another exception to skipping the flat stages is the final one, which always takes place on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Seeing the finish is something to behold. Many riders say they get goosebumps riding into Paris. You might too.
While this stage starts outside the city and is largely ceremonial at first, the second half is legit racing, so when the riders finally make it onto the Champs, it’s game on. They will do several laps at full speed as they rip over the cobbles. Winning the final Tour stage in Paris is one of the crowning achievements in cycling, so the sprinters will be going 100% to the line.
While the dense crowds can make it tough to get a clear view of the riders, the atmosphere is brilliant. Anywhere near the Arc de Triomphe is a bonus, though other spots along the Champs are worthwhile. And what better place for a Champagne toast.
As with everything else at the Tour, get there early,naturellement.
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