The Tour de France is the pinnacle of pro cycling.
It’s the third most watched sporting event in the world (behind the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympic Games).
Every summer, cycling fans worldwide are glued to the TV, discussing who’s in the yellow jersey, and who they think will attack in the mountains.
It’s many people’s dream of watching the Tour de France in person.
If that’s your dream, but you’re not sure how to do it, keep reading.
We’ll outline below the things to consider and the steps to take to ensure that you not only see the Tour LIVE and in person, but that you’ll also have an easier time planning your trip.
We’ve broken it down into two parts: Part 1 (Planning) and Part 2 (Race Day).
Part 1: Plan Well
If you want to have an enjoyable and memorable experience we suggest you plan well.
Know the dates
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.
Know the route
The Tour de France does not follow the same route every year, so be sure to confirm where the race will be going THIS year.
The route is generally announced in October each year for the following year. However this is often just a high-level overview that includes the dates, the start/end towns for each day, some general route info, and which days will be flat, hilly, mountainous, a time-trial, etc.
The route can also be found at the main Tour de France link above.
To get the nitty-gritty details of each day though, you’ll have to wait until around June of the year the race occurs.
But once they release the details, you’ll have a wealth of info. Here’s an example of what you’ll get, from a previous year’s race. You’ll need all of this to plan your trip well, so take note of it.
1. Detailed maps of exactly where the route goes (exact roads, towns, intersections, etc.)
2. Projected times that we race will pass through each of the towns, intersections, mountain peaks, etc. They estimate this based on average speed of the riders.
Here’s a full stage, in three separate pages.
Column 1 is the distance to go
Column 2 is the distance ridden thus far
Column 3 is the road/highway designation(number)
Column 4 is the town name
Columns 5-8 show the times that the Caravan and the race will pass through the aforementioned points. Notice that the race speed is estimated to give you a more precise time.
You’ll also notice that some LINES show when the race passes from one department to another (e.g Pyrénées-Alantiques)
The climbs and their corresponding categories are noted in RED.
The sprints are noted in GREEN.
3. Detailed stage profiles, showing the start, climbs, sprints, and finish
4. individual mountain profiles with kilometer by kilometer breakdown of steepness (in grade percentage) and altitude
Decide WHERE to see the Tour de France
The Tour can essentially be seen along all parts of its route: in villages, in the mountains, along the flat sunflower lined fields in the middle of nowhere, etc.
Where you choose to see the Tour depends completely on you and your desires
Mountains or Flats?
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.
Major climbing days are listed as “High Mountains” on the race schedule.
Keep in mind though, that if you want to see the Tour de France in the mountains you’ll have essentially only three options to do so:
1. Ride a bike up the mountain yourself
2. Walk up
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.
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?
Villages can be great places to watch the race because you’ll be surrounded by lots of other race fans.
There will also probably be some kind of Tour de France related event going on to celebrate the race coming through town. The race will probably be on a TV or two (or more) to watch the race.
But like all things related to the Tour, expect crowds.
Use a good map
While you can get away with using the race maps found on the www.letour.fr website, you’ll be much better off with a real, paper map from Michelin. (yes, we said paper).
Sure, you can use Google Maps to find the towns, roads, and mountains.
You can of course even plot out your route digitally, but in our opinion you’ll benefit from using a paper map to see the bigger picture of the day’s race route and not have to zoom in and out to find little villages or course details such as the road/highway numbers.
On race day, you’ll also benefit from using a paper map. You’ll see why in the race day, section below.
But which map should you use?
For France, Michelin is hands-down the best.
They come in a several levels of detail, besides the overall, big map of France (aka National Map/ Red Map)
Since you want the most detail, we’d recommend getting the ZOOM maps (aka GREEN) when available.
They offer the greatest detail, but are not available for every area. You can check out which areas are available here: ZOOM Maps of France
(Unfortunately, Michelin’s USA site doesn’t offer it’s own map store, so we’ll use the UK version for our planning).
Next best, in terms of detail, are the Michelin LOCAL maps of France (aka YELLOW maps). These are available for every part of France and are the map we’d recommend using if the green map isn’t available for your region.
There are also REGIONAL French maps (aka ORANGE maps) which show larger areas and are not bad to use if you can’t find a yellow or green version of the area you’ll need.
The maps in each of these series have a naming and unique numbering system, so how do you know exactly which map to buy?
Unless you’ve been to France a lot or understand the names of their “Regions” and “Departments”, you might find it confusing to know which map pertains to where you want to go.
We’ll break the process down for you to make it easier to understand.
Let’s say you’ve decided you want to see the Tour de France on Alpe d’Huez (Remember this is just an example. The Tour uses a different route every year, so they do not climb Alpe d’Huez every year.)
So where to you start?
Rather than just browsing through the Green, Yellow, and Orange maps trying to figure out which one is right for you, do this:
Do a quick Google search for Alpe d’Huez. Here’s the result:
In the Wikipedia search result box, you’ll notice that Alpe d’Huez is located in the department of Isère in the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.
Tip: Departments are smaller than regions, so a map of just the department will have more detail. These often correspond to the LOCAL (YELLOW) maps.
So then head over to the Michelin site and look for Isère. You’ll see that “Map 333 – Isère, Savoie” is an option and it even shows Alpe d’Huez on the front.
So you can either buy the Map 333 directly from the Michelin UK store, find it on another online retailer, or see if your local shop has it in stock.
You can then repeat this process of each department or region that you’ll be visiting.
Once you have your map(s), you’ll want to mark the race route(s).
When the detailed race itinerary is released in June, use a highlighter to draw the complete race route for the day(s) you’ll be watching the Tour live.
It is also very useful to note where the race will go on the days before and after you plan to view it.
Why the entire route AND the days before/after? Because it really helps to see EXACTLY where the riders and the entire race caravan will go not only on race day, but also where they will be coming from and headed to.
Remember that the Tour de France involves not just the riders and the fans, but the thousands of other people that make it possible (team personnel, press corps, media, police, emergency vehicles, publicity, etc.).
If you want to avoid the road traffic and find available lodging, it’s good to know where everyone is headed.
Getting Around France during the Tour de France
Do you need a car to watch the Tour de France?
You should decide how you’ll get to the race. Car or public transportation.
In general, car traffic and public transportation (rail and bus) shouldn’t be altered from their normal schedules EXCEPT for the day(s) when the Tour de France is nearby.
So getting around in France where the Tour is NOT visiting is the same as usual.
However the closer you get to the race, especially on race day, expect detours, delays, crowds, and traffic.
It’s for this reason that we don’t recommend driving onto the course the day of the race because you could end up getting stuck in traffic.
To be clear: the race course will be 100% CLOSED during the race.
Even well before and after the race, the course could be closed too as they allow race related vehicles and fans priority. This includes crossing the race course.
That said, a car can be a valuable and necessary asset to get you to the race viewing area and near the course, especially if you’re going to see the race anywhere outside of a town or village.
So depending on your desired viewing location, it could be best to avoid driving too close to the race course. Instead you might want to park a ways away and either walk or bike to the course.
Think about your timing
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 closed before the caravan comes through, not just the race, so you need to be in position before the caravan arrives.
Estimate where you think the race vehicles will go after the race is over. A good plan involves not only how to get to the course and watch the Tour, but also how you get out of the area after the race.
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.
Race Start and Finish towns will be heavily booked. The remaining rooms will be at a premium and expect to pay a lot more than the standard rate to stay in these towns.
There may also be a minimum number of nights stay imposed during the Tour dates.
Do you want to stay more than one night? Are you trying to follow the Tour for multiple days?
This is where your marked up map can really help.
Despite the long distances raced each day, one day’s start and finish might not actually be that far from the next day.
The race might twist and turn for many kilometers, but end up back very close to where it started.
So you might be able to maximize your race viewing while minimizing having to switch hotels.
Plus, you’re looking to save a little money, you might find better loding options a short distance (30+ km) from the race course(s).
How to book
In addition to the way that you might normally book a hotel or vacation home online, you might also want to check out Gîtes de France. It’s an holiday home / B&B organization that’s been around much longer than most of its contemporaries. You might find options listed there that you won’t find anywhere else.
Be Flexible and Prepared
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.
In some cases, the police will even close the roads to cars a full week before the race!
Consider how you’ll need to adapt your plan accordingly.
Our recommended method for seeing the race on your own is to use a bike and car combination.
Find lodging somewhere relatively close to the race.
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.
Plan on bringing a day pack to your viewing location. Be sure to include 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.
After the race, ride back to your parked car.
Then follow your planned drive to your hotel, having your map ready should you need to re-route due to unexpected race related traffic.
Part 2: Race Day (Putting it all together)
For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that you’ve decided to watch the Tour de France on one of the high passes in the French Pyrenees.
- You chose a hotel in the Pyrenees but still several kilometers from the actual race course
- You plan to drive to within 10km of the race course then ride your bike the remainder of the way, including several kilometers up the mountain where you’ll see the race pass by.
- You’ve got your Michelin map and your driving route planned out.
Ok, you’re ready to go! See below for what to do on the day of the race.
The Morning of the Race
Don’t squander the morning away even though you might not be seeing the race pass by until later in the afternoon.
Budget that everything will take a bit longer than you planned and it’s far better to be in your viewing location early, than to arrive too late when the police have shut down the roads. So:
Wake up in time to have a good breakfast.Don’t skimp on the most important meal of the day. You’ve got a big day ahead of you. You’ll need the fuel.
Double check your day bag. Do you have a change of clothes? Warm layers for viewing on the side of the mountain? Rain gear? Tip: while you don’t need to bring a change of shoes, standing around in cycling shoes all day isn’t the most fun. Throw in a pair of sandals or walking around shoes.
Do you have snacks, lunch, enough water? Tip: carrying food and enough water for the day up the mountain on your bike can be heavy and cumbersome. Instead, make sure you hydrate well at breakfast then stop at the base of the climb in a village to refill you water bottles there. You can also grab a sandwich or other easily portable meal there too.
On the road
If you’re traveling with a group, stopping at the base of the climb is also a good idea because you can regroup and make a plan of where you’ll meet up on the climb itself.
Try to pick a spot that has a steep pitch so the riders will be riding slower. If you’ve researched the climb in advance, you’ll have a good idea where this will be already.
These steep sections can also be the most crowded with fans and can be a lot of fun. But you may prefer a less crowded location. That’s up to you.
Be flexible with your viewing point. Even if you and your group decide on a place to watch the race while at the bottom, be willing to adapt once you see what the situation is on the climb itself.
If you can find a spot in which you can see down the mountain to watch the race advance, even better.
Go ride it! Allez! Now’s the time to test your legs against a Tour de France climb. Riding just a few hours before the race, you’ll be able to take in the full experience: the painted roads, the cheering fans, the costumes and the spectacle of it all.
Once you’re at your viewing point, changed into your dry clothes and maybe had a snack….. now you wait. In some cases, you may be waiting several hours.
Tip: Changing into dry clothes on a mountain roadside with thousands of other people around isn’t always easy if you’re trying to be modest.
You might consider bringing a thin towel with you for changing “room” purposes. It can double as a picnic blanket
While you wait: this is a great time to strike up conversations with other fans and swap cycling stories. Before you know it, the publicity caravan will be roaring through, giving away free trinkets and Tour de France souvenirs. After that, the race should be relatively close behind.
The Peleton: this is what you’ve been waiting to see! Soak it all up and enjoy!
Once the race passes, don’t be too quick to assume that the race is over. Stay off the race course. There may be more riders still to come. Especially on the big mountain days, the cyclists can be very spread out (even by as much as 45 minutes or more).
You’ll know that the end of the race has passed you, because of the final set of vehicles. There’s usually a group of cars, truck and vans behind the last (often struggling) rider. Be sure to cheer this last racer on! And finally, there will be the last (often red) vehicle with “fin de course” labeled on it.
If you’re in the final few kilometers of the race, see f there a TV nearby (either in a cafe or maybe on of the other roadside fans has one… often at a camper car). You can watch the race cross the finish line on TV, before you head off the mountain.
Change back into your riding clothes, pack up and head back down.
Be careful!!! Remember those thousands of fans lining the sides of the road as you climbed up the mountain? Well, they’re now all ahead of you on the road, also trying to get home. Watch your speed, control your bike and be careful!
You’ll be sharing the road with other cyclists, walkers, pets, cars, trucks and caravans! Every year many spectators are hurt while leaving the race course, so be cautious going downhill.
Once at the bottom, regroup with your friends and ride back to your car. If you chose your parking place well, you’ll notice how the car traffic lessens considerably while you ride back to your car on your bike. Now follow your planned route out of the area to avoid all the other vehicle traffic from the race.
Back at the hotel: get cleaned up and go out to celebrate!