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Tour de France Viewing in Person- What to Expect
Tour de France Viewing in Person- What to Expect           Articles Index
by Walt Ballenberger                                                                         Beaux Voyages Home

What does an HC (hors categorie, or “out of category”) or even a Category 1 or
Category 2 climb feel like?  Can I do it, or would I need to get off and walk?  How much of
the Tour de France will I get to see if I go there on an organized tour?  These are just
several of the many questions cyclists ask while they are contemplating a trip to France to
see the Tour.

Experiencing the Tour de France in person can be the fulfillment of a lifetime dream for
many cyclists.  Seeing the colorful peleton swoosh by, riding the famous mountains like the
Alp d’Huez or Col du Galibier in the Alps, for example, are dreams for many cyclists, both
avid riders and weekenders.  Watching the Tour on OLN is not like being there, however,
and those who have the right expectations will get the most for their time and their money.

How Much Will I See?
One must first realize that being at the side of the road for the Tour is not the same as
watching stages on TV.  Television has great advantages, of course, due to the cameras
mounted on motorcycles and helicopters which follow the riders.  In that way one can
follow the progress of specific riders for several hours.  When one is at the Tour in person,
however, the peleton goes by quickly, and many novices seem almost perplexed by the
obvious.  Some say things like “Gee, that was fast.  I didn’t get to see much at all.”  And
this is true if the location one watches from is on a flat area early in the day’s race.  Even if
there is a breakaway by then, one would see only the small group of escapees and then
the peleton zoom by probably just a few minutes later.  

View the Action At Climbs
The best way to combat this problem is to view stages at climbs.  Getting to the route
hours before the riders arrive, one can ride a favorite climb, like the Col du Tourmalet in
the Pyrenees or the Alp d‘Huez, for example.  Expert cyclists can ride the whole climb, but
novices need only ride a portion so that they can get a taste of what it is like for the pros.  
They can also pick out a good viewing spot, although organized tours may stake out a
spot for their group.  Some of the best spots are found after climbing several switchbacks
and locating yourself where you can look down the hill and see the riders approaching
from below.  They will take a while to reach you, and since the peleton is often spread out
on the climbs, your viewing time will be much longer, perhaps even 20-30 minutes on
some stages.  You will get a better look at the individual riders as well, as they obviously
move slower on the upslopes.  The frenzied mountain top finishes one sees on TV can
also be misleading for first time Tour viewers.  Many of these locations are not accessible
on race days, and most of the people who are on the side of the road at the top have
been camping there for several days or have hiked miles to see the finish.  They are only
in a position to see one stage, so for organized tours that wish to view several stages in
succession, this situation is not an option.  If one is fortunate enough to see a time trial
stage, the whole problem is alleviated.  Riders pass by one at a time throughout the day,
so the “vanishing peleton” problem is not an issue in that case.

The French Police
The French police, called gendarmes, provide security along the race routes, and they
can be very arbitrary.  The roads upon which the Tour is held will be closed by the police
sometime before the Sponsor’s Caravan arrives.  This colorful parade of vehicles
precedes the riders typically by an hour, and samples of various products are tossed from
the vehicles to the spectators.  Most of the gendarmes are tolerant of the tourists who ride
bikes along the Tour race route before the peleton arrives.  Sometimes, however, if one is
riding a bike on the Tour route for the day, a gendarme might be strict and will tell that
person he cannot ride on the road any longer because it is closed.  The best course of
action is to get off the bike, walk along until the gendarme is no longer in view, and then
take off riding again to get to where you want to go.  This technique isn’t always foolproof,
however.  On one stage of the 2005 Tour de France our guests were riding on the Tour
route, and they returned rather quickly saying that a gendarme would not let them
continue on the road.  I later rode my bike in the same direction they did in order to
investigate.  I passed quite a number of gendarmes along the way, and all they did was to
tell me to stay well to the side and be careful.  At about 10 kilometers from the finish line a
gendarme stopped me and asked where I came from.  I told him “the United States”.  
Somewhat exasperated, he sputtered, “no, how far have you been riding on the road, it’s
closed!”  I said I came from kilometer 3 and passed many gendarmes,  none of them
stopped me and all just told me to be careful.  He said “well, they are not doing their jobs,
but I’m doing mine!”  This was the archetypical Frenchman, king of his little plot of turf.  He
made me go off on a side road for awhile before finding the Tour road again closer to our
viewing position.  Fortunately the vast majority of gendarmes are more reasonable than
this person, but they are responsible for public safety and are doing a balancing act
between that and letting the tourists enjoy themselves.  Of course when the Sponsor’s
Caravan arrives, one has no choice but to stop, as the vehicles zip by quickly and are
somewhat reckless at times.

After the Tour Passes By
One of the best ways to enjoy the races after the riders pass by is to find a local café or
bar with a TV and then watch the end of the race while partaking of a few adult beverages
with your group.  On our Pyrenees tour last year, several people in the group listed as one
of their favorite memories of the week our time at the bar watching the American George
Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s  teammate,  win at the finish of the penultimate mountain
stage.  We viewed the riders earlier that day in person from the Col de Menthe, a
Category 1 climb which was not far away.  Afterwards we saw the finish on TV, and the bar
was filled with local French people, as well as groups of Australians and of course us
Americans.  The cheers when Hincapie pulled away to win were raucous, and even the
local Frenchman were laughing at the enthusiasm of the American group.  When
Armstrong’s main rivals were on the screen, a chorus of resounding “boos” filled the room,
and this brought many laughs.  After the finish we stopped on our way back to our hotel
next to a field of sunflowers and took pictures in the field amongst the flowers.  I’m sure our
tour guests won’t forget the memories of that day for a long time.  The bar owner enjoyed
our company as well and invited us back (he did well that day), and we’ll certainly be there
again next year with our group.  

Starts and Finishes of Stages
It’s good to remember that the Tour de France is the largest spectator sporting event in
the world.  Everyone wants to see the riders at the starts and finishes.  Unless our hotel
happens to be in the town of a start or finish where we can walk to the event, we generally
try to avoid these.  The crowds are literally overwhelming, and just to get a view of the
podium award ceremony is to risk being squeezed like a sardine in a can.  I say this from
personal experience.  It really isn’t worth the effort unless one has VIP tickets to the
fenced-off areas at the starts and finishes of stages.

If you are hoping to come home with a boat-load of souvenirs, keep this in mind:  buy them
as soon as possible.  If you wait to purchase them later, the stands and vehicles will be
gone.  It is amazing how fast the vendors pull up stakes and leave after the last rider
passes their location.  Remember, the Tour de France lasts for over 3 weeks, and the
vendors are off in no time to beat the peleton to the next location.

These are hard to come by.  The riders are protected form the crowds, and even if you
are near them at a start or finish, they’re usually riding and are not approachable.  Some
tours have agreements with former Tour riders, and in that situation, of course, one can
get autographs and pictures with the former riders.  We are expecting to include this
experience in our 2006 tours.  Unless your group is in the same hotel with a participating
team, an unlikely happenstance, it’s hard to get autographs, so set your expectations
accordingly and hope for the best.

Bathroom Facilities (or lack thereof)
These are available in towns, and a few areas outside of starts and finishes.  Oftentimes,
however, there is nothing nearby.  At the St. Etienne time trial in the 2005 Tour, the only
“facilities” were in the corn field adjacent to the road from which we viewed the riders
pass.  This was not a big problem for the men, and it was a little surprising to see how well
the ladies adapted to this predicament.  They realized there was no other choice and didn’
t complain, even laughing about the situation while heading off to the corn field in pairs (a
guard was advisable).  This year we have found a product that might offer a little better
alternative called P-Mate.  With this apparatus ladies can void themselves while standing.  
(I’m not making this up.)  This item is then put into a plastic bag for later disposal.  Of
course French bathrooms do not have the best reputation in any case, but that is perhaps
another article for another day.

Is It Worth It?
Apparently the answer is a resounding “yes”.  One of our guests on our Pyrenees tour last
summer summed it up by writing, “This is the coolest thing we have ever done!”. Many
others express the same sort of reaction as well.  With the right set of expectations, that
should hopefully be the state of mind of just about everyone who wishes to see one of the
world’s great sporting events in person.  The charm of France, the excellent wine and
cuisine, and the beautiful French countryside coupled with the country’s history are added
bonuses as well.  And a souvenir on your desk or office wall showing that you made it to
the top of the Alp d’Huez is not a bad trophy either.
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