“The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most .” Eddie Merckx, famous French professional cyclist.
With plenty of mountain stages, an uphill mountain time trial, terrifying descents, heavy rains, and crushing winds, there were plenty of opportunities for suffering in this year’s Tour de France. Long on our bucket list, we were both excited to spend two weeks riding and following many stages of the Tour de France. For those unfamiliar, the Tour de France is a 3 week cycle race that attracts the world’s most elite riders. There are grand tours in other European countries (Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana), but the Tour de France is the oldest (started in 1903) and considered the most prestigious. There are a few longer stage races that are growing in popularity back in the States (Tour of Utah, Tour of California as examples), but most do not come close in attendance, global awareness, and marketing and sponsorship dollars as the Tour de France.
The Tour takes over France every July, and you best not be in its way. It is extremely popular among its European fans and is one of the only premier sporting events in the world where fans can show up and watch for free. It is also one of the only professional sporting events where fans can get so close to athletes and teams. Of course, there are many options to spend money to enjoy premier viewing experiences to get even closer – such as riding along with a team or sponsor cars or watching it from above in an helicopter.
In both the large cities and small villages that the Tour visits, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of fans come out to watch. Many drive campers and RVs around following the race for the full three weeks. At the pivotal and popular stages, usually mountain stages in the Pyrenees or the Alps (such as Mt. Ventoux or Alp D’Huez), it would not be unusual for 100-200K people to congregate on the roadsides to watch the riders. Many mark their territory days or even weeks in advance.
Fans are varied and diverse. There are the rowdy beer-drinking youth, families, couples, grandparents with tricked out RVs and tablecloths, jacket and tie folks at the VIP areas in the beginning and end of the races each day, and of course, cycling fanatics with all types of bikes and gear. And not a small amount of penguin suits and other such outfits. Then there is the iconic Tour de France devil who is credited with starting the trend of wearing costumes to sporting events.
Logistics for watching this race are not for the faint of heart. There are certainly many that jump in their cars, pack their camping gear and go, but having some experience or traveling with those that have some is the way to go. We found a UK-based company, Sports Tours International, that have been taking folks to the Tour for decades and offered a great mix of viewing options along with daily rides and climbs. We were a group of 30 or so from all over the globe – Europe, Britain, Australia and New Zealand and even Belize as well as the Cayman Islands. About half of the group were riding and the other half just watching. The cycling crew were mostly serious folks with couples tricked out in matching team gear and many sporting their new Rapha kit. Our guides were a couple retired firemen from Southern Cal (go figure) and our seasoned bus driver (so key for avoiding the post race traffic) was from Belgium. We were equipped with a full on motor coach with a trailer for the bikes and a minivan for getting in and around the race circuits. We did not have laundry facilities on our bus like the pro’s but then again, we had built-in coolers stocked full with cold beer.
Generally, there is a lot of waiting while watching the tour. If you are only at the stage for the day, you need to arrive at least a couple hours early if you want to claim a spot with an interesting vantage point. Climbs are a popular spot to watch as riders will often be slowed down if the grade is steep (although it is amazing how fast these guys climb). So you camp out for a few hours with friends, beers, kindles and all sorts of other means of occupying your time. Excitement builds throughout the day until Tour car traffic increases and the Caravan rolls through. The Caravan is basically a parade of sponsors that zooms thru throwing out free chotskies to the crowds. It is a good way to amp up the crowd before the racers arrive, but the competition for free hats and key chains can get crazy.
But the real excitement comes when the sound of the TV helicopters overhead along with the chants of “allez, allez” from the crowd down road can be heard. This is when you know the riders will be coming in fast.
Much of the route, including the important climbs, are open to the public up until a few hours before the riders arrive so everyday there are fans out on the routes cycling the course for the day. Riding some of the big climbs a few hours before the Tour when all the fans are out in force, camped out on the road, and well into their beverages was one of our favorite experiences. We were able to ride a number of classic climbs including Mt Ventoux (ouch), Grand Colombier, Col de Joux Plane, Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc le Bettex.
Our ride up Mt Ventoux was quite something. At the base, it was hot and closing in on 90. at the top, it chilled down to the 40’s. It was a very windy day with gusts clocked in at over 160 km/hr and very strong sustained winds that were punishing when confronting them head on. Luckliy, there are many switchbacks so we were not always heading into it. At the top, riders were being blown off bikes – it was crazy. The next day, the Tour officials canceled the top of Mt Ventoux – the last 6kms because of the winds.
Mountain stages are great ones to watch because they usually determine the winners, but they also slow the riders down so you can get a chance to see more of them as they roll by you. On mountain stages (especially towards the end of the week), riders can be strung out almost an hour( but all need to be within 20% of finisher to stay in the race).
The riders have gone before you know it, and then you are rushing to get out of the town before the chaotic traffic begins. Small towns can get absolutely crushed.
We were able to see two time trial stages which are quite the experience because there is a lot more going on through out the day. During time trials, riders navigate the course along competing for the fastest times. They usually start 2-3 minutes after each other so with 200 riders, there is a full day of starts or finishes or riders rolling by you.
Also, you can wander around the start village and view riders warming up before their race, talk with team mechanics, and check out the bikes up close.
One of the time trials that we watched was an uphill mountain stage- a bit unique. We got the benefits of both a mountain stage and a time trial stage and were able to ride part of the climb early in the day so it proved to be a very interesting day.
Included in our outing with the group were two VIP experiences that allowed us to get a bit closer and view the race in relative comfort. The first such experience was at the finish line on Stage 15 which was a mountain stage but also included a circular route so the riders came through the finish line twice. After riding the climb in the morning, we watched the race outside on big screen TV’s until the riders came by where we watched it live. The “free beer” and finish line setting had the crowd excited and we met all sorts of characters. Susan ended up hanging out with the mother of the owner of Team Dimension Data (they had a great tour this year). Team Dimension, based in South Africa, is also a rather unique team in that they are associated with the Qhubeka Foundation. The Qhubeka Foundation is a South African based non-profit that donates bikes to underprivileged kids who have achieved certain goals.
Our second VIP experience didn’t go quite so well. It was another spot set up next to the race course where there was fantastic food and drink and big screen TVs for viewing the race before the riders arrived in the area. This was all great, especially after another big morning of climbing. But heavy rains began to fall and the area was actually flooded out so they had to close the area and we all joined the racers (they don’t stop the race for rain) out on the road and got a bit wet. But we were able to see the racers charge by and the then we ran to the shelter of a local bar, with a standing-room only crowd, to watch the finish.
Our final day was back in Paris to watch the famous end to the 3 weeks. At about 6pm, the racers arrive and cycle down the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe where they make 8 laps along the champs. It is an incredibly popular stage given its Paris setting and the 8 laps. Hundreds of thousands turned out. Given the horrible events in Nice a week earlier, the military and police presence was both sobering and impressive. And blocks around the race were completely closed, creating quite a surreal feel. At this point in our trip, we had reached our limit with the crowds and the waiting so we strolled around the circuit, watched the women’s race (they are FAST too), and then headed to Paris bistro to watch the final.
It was a great couple weeks of cycling and watching for us. For those interested in the sport, we would highly recommend checking out at least a few stages or days of the tour. You can get a similar experience with less crowds at one of the other European grand tours but the crowds and mayhem are what makes the Tour de France so unique.
Stay tuned for some of our thoughts and photos of cycling the villages of the tour this year.