Tour de France Viewing in Person – What to Expect (Part 1)

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.

Walt Ballenberger is founder of Beaux Voyages, which provides active tours in France including Tour de France bike tours. He has lived and worked in France and speaks the language fluently.

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