Guide to Watching the Tour de France in Person: How, Where and When (Part 1)

Would you like to watch the Tour de France in person? Are you planning your own trip to France and would like to know how to add on a viewing of one or more Tour stages? Working in the bike tour business and having cycling tours in France, we often get asked by cyclists and non-cyclists alike: how do I watch a stage of the Tour de France in person? Is it impossible to get close to the race? Where do I stay? Where is best to watch the race?

The short answer is YES, it’s possible and we’ll tell you our thoughts on the best way to see the Tour de France:

A collected peloton in the 2006 Tour

A collected peloton in the 2006 Tour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part 1: Plan Well.

If you want to have an enjoyable and memorable experience we suggest you plan well.

  1. Know the dates you’re available to see the race. The Tour de France typically is held in July over a period of three weeks. On some years, it may start during the last few days of June.
  2. Check the official race route to see where the race will be for the dates you’re available. See www.letour.fr (French version) or www.letour.fr/us/ (English version). The Tour does not follow the same route every year, so you’ll have to plan accordingly.
  3. The Tour can essentially be seen along all parts of its route: in villages, in the mountains, along the flat sunflower lined fields, etc.
  4. For the best viewing and some of the most lively experience, we suggest watching the race on the slopes of one of the major climbs. The riders will be going slower and allow you a better chance to see the action. On flat roads, the pro racers will speed past in a blink of an eye, so it might be over before you know it. Of course your dates will have to coincide with this. Major climbing days are listed as “High Mountains” on the race schedule.
  5. Keep in mind though, that if you want to see the Tour in the mountains you’ll have essentially only three options to do so: 1. ride a bike up the mountain yourself, 2. walk up, or 3. drive up (however roads will close to motorized vehicles many hours to even many days in advance of the race. If you choose to drive up the mountain, you’ll need to be prepared to camp out for quite awhile. That, combined with fact that you’ll have to deal with the horrendous traffic after the race, is why we don’t recommend this option. The camper van on the side of the road, days in advance of the race is an experience in itself and is worthy of its own independent discussion. For us, we’ll continue with options 1 and 2: biking or walking.
  6. If the mountains don’t sound like your thing or if they are too remote for the time you have available, you can still watch the race from one of the many other spots along the route. Perhaps seeing the race as it passes through a small village is more what you’re looking for?
  7. Car or no car? You should decide how you’ll get to the race. Even though we don’t recommend driving up onto the course in advance of the race, a car can be a valuable and necessary asset to get you to the race viewing area. You’ll need to plan your route well though. (see below) If you’re not using a car, you’ll have to rely on public transportation (bus or train) and/or on your own means (i.e. bike or walking).
  8. If you’re taking public transportation, be sure to check for any interruptions in service due to the Tour.
  9. Look at the exact route (town by town) when it’s released in June. This is very IMPORTANT. Prior to the release of this detailed itinerary, you’ll only have a general idea of where the race is going. With the detailed itinerary you’ll be able to see the exact route the race will use, listing all of the towns and landmarks it will pass and the itinerary will include the estimated time of day that the race will be at each point along the route. This will be your guide to know exactly where and when to go.
  10. Get yourself a good quality Michelin map for just the region your viewing the race. If you can’t get one before your trip, use www.viamichelin.com which has good details from their printed maps, but as an interactive version online. Use the map to draw out the stage for the day you’ll see the race. You’ll then be able to see the easiest way to approach and leave the course with your car or bike.
  11. In planning your route (if you’re driving), try not to cross the race course either before or afterwards. You don’t want to get stuck and not be able to proceed if they close the route earlier than you thought.
  12. Take the publicity caravan into account when you plan your timing. The caravan will proceed the race by an hour or so. The roads will close before the caravan comes through, not just the race, so you need to be in position before the caravan arrives.
  13. Estimate where you think the race vehicles will go after the race is over. If you’re seeing the race near the finish, look to see where the race is starting the following day. The riders, officials and all of the support vehicles will be headed to the next day’s start town after the race. You’ll probably want to avoid going the same direction unless you want to sit in traffic.
  14. Lodging: You’ll find better loding options a short distance (30+ km) from the race course, than too near the race course.
  15. Our recommended method for seeing the race on your own is to use a bike and car combination. Drive to within 10 to 20 kilometers of the course and park. Then ride your bike the last bit. Very often bikes will be able to continue onto the course well after it’s been closed for cars. By riding you’ll have priority access, cover more ground faster, extend your range of being able to see the race, but you’ll certainly get more into the spirit by being on your bike than in your car.
  16. Modify your plan depending on what stage you’re seeing. For example, if you’re going to watch the stage speed by you on one of the flat stages early during the first week, there will be plenty of time and space to find a good viewing spot. However if you want to see the race in the mountains, on one of the last days of the Tour, be prepared for much bigger crowds and much, much earlier road closures. When they had the uphill time trial on Alpe d’Huez, the crowds were so huge that they closed the roads a full week before the race!
  17. Bring snacks, change of clothes, etc. You might be on the side of the road, waiting to see the race for several hours (especially in the mountains), so pack some warm clothes, water and some food. You’ll be glad you did.
The peloton of the Tour de France

The peloton of the Tour de France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next up… Part 2: What To Do On The Actual Day You Watch the Tour de France.

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