Set amid some of the most astoundingly beautiful scenery in the world, the Tour de France is a sporting event unlike any other. The contrast of brutally steep climbs up mountain terrain and thrilling city sprints are the result of months of training for the world’s greatest cyclists, and breathtaking to watch for spectators. The 103rd Tour de France route will traverse a total distance of 3,519 kilometres across some remarkable locations – and includes stages in Switzerland, Spain and Andorra.
To the French, this iconic race is a huge part of their national identity, and the incredible feeling of exhilaration as the peloton comes rushing past makes it easy to see why. To help you cheer on the eight British hopefuls taking part – including reigning champion Chris Froome and sprint king Mark Cavendish – take a look at our guide of the best places to watch the Tour de France 2016.
The Grand Depart: Mont Saint-Michel – Utah Beach
The race begins against the stunning backdrop of Mont Saint-Michel, one of France’s most magical attractions and the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. An abbey perched atop the hill of an island seemingly adrift in the sea, Mont Saint-Michel is an unforgettable sight and a suitably dramatic place to start the race. You can follow the action as they move along the Cotentin Peninsula until the stage finish at Utah Beach, code name for a stretch of sand during the famous Normandy landings of D-Day in June 1944, a critical turning point of World War 2.
First Mountain Stage: Saint-Lô – Cherbourg-en-Cotentin
Riders will face their first steep terrain on Stage 2, which follows the mountains along the coast of the English Channel (a mere stone’s throw from Jersey and Guernsey). The finish line is found at the summit of a gruelling climb, including a 14% gradient of Côte de La Glacerie, where you’ll see the riders still full of energy powering up the incline. After the action, the Cotentin Peninsula has plenty to offer by way of secluded beaches, sand yachting lessons and fresh seafood. If you can linger a while, it’s well worth doing so.
A Classic Pyrenees Race: Pau – Bagnères-de-Luchon
Starting in Pau, a stage town for the 68th time, this route is a typical Pyrenees course. These mountain contests have always been particularly popular with spectators, who enjoy the celebratory atmosphere and the chance to enjoy proceedings for longer than on the rapid downhill or flat sections. Riders will be taking on the well-established Col du Tourmalet, but the new approach up La Hourquette d’Ancizan should throw up some interesting challenges too. If you’ve been doing some cycling yourself, soothe your aching muscles afterwards with a visit to Bagnères-de-Luchon’s thermal baths or simply spoil yourself with the local Dardenne chocolates.
Spain to Andorra: Vielha Val d’Aran – Andorre Arcalis
Stage 9 is the first international section of the 2016 Tour, with riders beginning in Spain and finishing in the Principality of Andorra, one of the smallest nations in Europe. They’ll tackle five of the Spanish Pyrenees peaks before crossing the border through Vielha Val d’Aran into the microstate, and the section close makes for a great spot for spectators to make camp. Because there’s a rest day at Andorre Arcalis, you’ll get to see both the demanding finish of Stage 9 and the powerful start of Stage 10 two days later. Make the most of the jaw-dropping scenery all around by hiking the nature parks of Sorteny, Comapedrosa, or the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Madriu Valley.
Bastille Day Race: Montpellier – Mont Ventoux
With lively Bastille Day celebrations kicking off across the country on 14 July, French riders may well push ahead, swelling with national pride and cheered on by a home crowd. The final stretch will see the peloton approach the imposing 1,912-metre Mont Ventoux (for the first time since 2013), the toughest climb of this year’s race. Known as ‘the Giant of Provence’ and ‘The Bald Mountain’ due to its striking lack of trees, this ascent is one of the most fabled on the Tour. Expected to be one of the most popular with fans, intrepid fans seeking a good view without crowds should head towards Chalet Reynard, to meet the race at its halfway point.
Alpine Wonderland: Bourg-en-Bresse – Culoz
The first true alpine section of the Tour arrives at Stage 15, and the landscape quickly switches to a dramatic blend of glacial valleys and snow dusted peaks. While competitors will face the knee-trembling prospect of climbing the Jura Massif’s Grand Colombier, spectators at least will revel in the opportunity to see all 198 cyclists storm up the winding hill – particularly amidst the stunning setting of the Rhône River and the Lac du Bourget, the largest lake in France.
A Swiss Adventure: Moirans-en-Montagne – Bern
After the rapid journey through the Jura mountain valleys, riders will need to refuel on a well-deserved final rest day in Bern, Switzerland. The most testing section of the Tour lies ahead, with four consecutive mountain stages up next, but there’s no such worry for spectators. While you are here, explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old City of Bern, which is home to the Houses of Parliament, Albert Einstein’s House and over 100 historic fountains. Indulge yourself with lavish meals at restaurants by the banks of the Aare river before catching the riders set off to Finhaut-Emosson, the spectacular Emosson Dam and eventually the looming peak of Mont Blanc.
The Big Finish: Chantilly – Champ Elysees, Paris
Kicking off in the château-dotted region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie (known as Hauts-de-France from October 2016), stage 21 is the final sprint and the Tour de France finish line. Tradition decrees that the culmination of the riders’ extraordinary efforts must end in the centre of Paris, and it’s a magnificent sight to behold. This prestigious section sees the athletes handed champagne to sip along the the City of Lights’ glorious Avenue des Champs-Élysées, speeding along the cobbles around the Arc de Triomphe until the Tour’s climax.
For more advice on exactly how to enjoy the Tour de France, check out our top tips post for more information.