Comfortably the most famous cycling race in the world, the Tour de France is a gruelling challenge for the sport’s greatest athletes across some of Europe’s most difficult mountain terrains. For cycling fans, there really is nothing like watching the peloton battle up a steep incline or zoom by during sprint stages. To help you soak up all of the atmosphere throughout, check out our practical Tour de France guide to get up to speed on this iconic race.
Tour de France Guide: The Basics
If you’re a Tour newbie, the long and short of it is this: 22 teams of nine cyclists race a distance of more than 3,000km across some of the most jaw-dropping parts of France and neighbouring countries. With riders averaging at around 100km a day for three weeks, this is the ultimate endurance event.
While the winner of the Tour is the one who clocks up the lowest aggregate time throughout all the stages (also called general classification), there is also a points system created to determine the winner of other designations within the race.
At the end of each stage, there are a number of special jerseys given out to the various winners: a yellow to the overall leader, green for the rider with the most points, white with red polka dots for the best climber, and finally a white jersey is awarded to the best young rider aged 25 and younger. This colour classification can make it easier to spot the movers and shakers as they come tearing past you.
What to Bring
Depending on which stage you visit, you will need to be prepared with appropriate clothing for the weather as well as food and drinks. If you are joining the mountain stages in the Alps or the Pyrenees, remember to bring some warm clothes; even if it’s sunny, the temperature can drop in an instant at high altitude.
A good idea is to bring along a picnic and plenty of water (especially for the hotter stages to the south) as you wait for the peloton to come rushing past. If you’re bringing along your pet, make sure they are kept on a leash throughout. Excitable dogs have run onto the track on numerous occasions over the years, disrupting the race and putting themselves at risk. To avoid harm to both your beloved companion and the competitors, it’s best to use a short lead.
Many keen cyclists bring their own bike to France to try out stages like the challenging peaks of the Alps or the relative flats of Normandy for themselves. Alternatively, you can also hire a bike and have it both delivered directly to you and collected afterwards – ideal for those travelling to a few different locations.
Where to Watch
One of the greatest joys in watching the Tour de France live is that it’s completely free to do so. Because the race takes place across vast swathes of countryside, spectators who drive usually find a place to park before heading to a vantage point on foot – or on a bike of course.
However, the summits (especially in the mountain sections) can be very crowded, so if you are cycling up, you’ll need to be confident in your ability to negotiate narrow gaps between cars, bikes and pedestrians. The mountain stages and time trials are incredibly atmospheric, so arrive early and try to find a good spot overlooking the road or cheer on the athletes right on the roadside.
Grab Some Freebies
One of the most popular aspects of the Tour for spectators, and an important part of this Tour de France guide, is the publicity caravan!
Just before the riders come through, onlookers will see the arrival of a procession of flamboyantly decorated vehicles that throw out free gifts to the crowd. This brand parade has been an integral part of the tour for 80 years and provides a fun 45 minutes before the racers come through.
Plan Your Journey
If you are driving, make sure to plan your journey ahead of time as there are often a lot of road closures en route. A good way to maximise your cycling viewing is to stay in one of the places the riders have a rest day. This allows you to witness an exciting finish, explore the scenic delights of the surrounding area then get in place for a powerful start as participants get ready to go again.