5 Tips To See Le Tour De France (In Person)
This week we were lucky enough to knock off one of our “bucket list” items. We saw Le Tour De France in person, IN FRANCE! Yup, if I sound excited that’s because we actually got to do it!! It’s one of the many things we’ve looked forward to when we moved over here, and we felt darn lucky that we got to do it so soon.
Today is the last day of the 2018 Tour, so most of the actual biking excitement is over (Geraint Thomas has sealed the deal). But I figured this would be an apt time to share what we learned in our little crash-course about catching the action, just in case you might decide to do the same one day. We’re obviously amateurs at this since this is our FIRST Tour, but we did learn a few super useful tips. Here goes….
What Is Le Tour De France???
If you’re not a cycling fan you may not have heard of The Tour, so let me give you the 2 minute version.
The Tour De France is an annual men’s* multiple stage bicycle race primarily held in France. It was first staged in 1903 and consists of 21 stages, completed over 23 days, traditionally held in the month of July. The route changes a bit every year, and alternates between clockwise and counterclockwise circuits of France, but it always involves several crazy mountain stages and covers around 3,500 km (~2,200 miles). It is a grueling race that has become one of the most famous cycling races in the world.
These days coverage of The Tour is worldwide, and you can follow it both on TV & the internet, but for real fans the ultimate goal is see it in person. It’s estimated that 10-12 million people (!!!) line the roadside to watch the event and they come from all over, by car, plane and motorhome (RV). The towns that host it cater to the crowds, and often provide parking, entertainment and more. It’s quite the event and if you’re at all into cycling, it’s definitely something to put on your bucket list!
*No Women?? Yes, Le Tour is and has been (up until now) men only. However this year 13 women riders completed the entire Tour as amateurs, riding every Stage before the men. They got no official coverage and no official prizes, but they were there to show it could be done, and campaign for it to be part of the future. GO ladies!
Tip #1: Pick An Exact Spot & Time
The great thing about Le Tour is that it’s super easy to know exactly where it’s going to be at (almost) exactly what time. The official Tour website https://www.letour.fr/en/ has super-detailed info on every Stage. This includes a zoomable (interactive) map, as well as a detailed time schedule that shows exact start times, and estimates on when the riders will hit various points along the route (depending on their speed).
Using these two tools it’s easy to find spots to watch. You can either plan to be at the beginning or end of a Stage (very popular choices in general), or you can pick somewhere along the route. If you plan to be “en route” then the time schedule can help you to narrow down when the riders will likely be at that exact spot.
The amount of time you’ll need to stay to see everything depends on what you want to see and what type of Stage it is.
The Tour starts off with a publicity caravan, that comes through a few hours ahead of the riders themselves. It consists of a series of advertising vehicles representing some of France’s biggest brands, that throw out free gifts to bystanders. The cars are usually elaborately decorated and you can score anything from free food to caps & T-shirts. The whole caravan takes about 45 minutes to pass through, and is a super popular thing to see.
The riders themselves will start later, at the official start-time. Once they’re on the road, you’ll be able to follow them in real time via the official letour.fr website in the “race center”. You’ll know they’re close when you see helicopters overhead and hear the roar of the crowd ahead of you, and then you’ll have just a short time to actually catch the action because they’ll be going by FAST!!!
Exactly how fast, you ask? Well, that depends on the type of Stage you’re on.
If it’s a flattish Stage the riders will be going around ~40-45 km/hr (25-28 mph) and will probably come through en masse (all together, in one big peleton). At these speeds, it might only take a minute or so to see everyone pass by. On the big uphill sections of the mountain Stages the riders will be going slower at ~20 km/hr (still frikkin’ fast!), plus they are more likely to be spread out, so you’ll have much more time to see them come through. On downhill sections of mountain Stages, you might not want to blink because speeds can exceed 100km/hr (~60 mph). Crazy right?
If you want to get a LIVE feel for how fast these guys go here is the 59 SECOND video Paul took of the peleton as they came through the flat section of Paihles, Stage 16 of the 2018 Tour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6vCvwSucAE
Tip #2: Plan Well Ahead Or Drive In
If you’re planning to see Le Tour at a start or end point of a Stage, or you want to see the Grand Finale in Paris, then you’ll have to plan well ahead.
Hotels in popular areas will be booked out months in advance, and they’ll get more expensive closer to the date. So if you want to be right “in town” or “en route” then you definitely have to plan for that. On the other hand Hotels in less popular areas, or somewhat outside the actual route will have much more availability. So if you’re willing to see a Stage in a smaller town, or you’re willing to drive in (or bike in) to see a Stage, then you can plan that way with much more flexibility.
If you’re coming by motorhome (RV), you’ll have several options, depending on how you want to stay.
Formal camping spots (campgrounds) along the route fill up quickly and must be booked months ahead. However if you’re willing to forgo amenities, which is what most folks opt to do, then you can typically find a free parking spot either in a nearby Aire de Repos, in town, or along the side of the road. And you just need to be there within a few days of The Tour arrival (~3 days ahead of time is ample)!
You can research spots on websites like THIS one (tourdefrance-manche), THIS one (airecampingcar.com), or THIS one (park4night.com) or just drive into a town and look around. Most towns actively prepare for The Tour and will designate extra parking for incoming motorhomes. It’s a super easy, flexible, and inexpensive way to see the action.
Lastly if you’re coming by car, you can simply drive in the day of Le Tour itself. Just plan ahead for road closures (see below).
Tip #3: Be Aware Of Road Closures
On the day of The Tour, roads will be closed for motorized traffic along the entire length of the Stage, including any routes going through towns.
How early the roads close, and when they open up again, varies from region to region, and town to town. It depends on how popular the Stage is and how difficult the access is.
For example, in the popular mountain Stages roads will sometimes close the day before arrival, whereas in smaller towns the closure may be only for a few hours on the day itself. So if you’re planing to drive in, it’s good practice to check closures before you arrive. The local “Marie” (town hall/mayor) or local tourist office will typically have these details on their websites, or you can call in to check.
Note that closures are only for motorized traffic, but foot traffic and bicycles are allowed. So there is always the option to park slightly outside of an area and then either walk or bike in.
Tip #4: Consider The Smaller Towns “En Route”
A lot of folks that come to see The Tour want to be part of the big fanfare, choosing to see it either at the beginning or end of a Stage, or catching it at the big finish in Paris (a MAJOR event). The larger towns cater to this and have a lot going on, not just during the Tour itself, but before and after the race.
That can be a lot of fun, but can also be a bit stressful if you’re not into big crowds and (potentially) lots of waiting around.
A much more relaxed experience is simply to chose a smaller town, or park yourself on a stretch of road between smaller towns in the French countryside.
If you chose to see The Tour this way, you’ll obviously miss the big fanfare of the departure (or arrival), but you’ll gain the advantage of flexibility (less planning). Plus you’ll have no problem finding a good spot to view the action up-close with zero obstructions. It’s a super low-stress way to experience it.
Tip #5: Prepare With Seats, Hats, Water & Snacks
My last tip is simply to be prepared to wait around for the Tour to come through. The wait may be multiple hours if you want to catch the publicity caravan, or if you chose to watch the tour from a popular spot. Or it might only be half an hour if you just want to see the riders and you chose a smaller town with easy access.
So bring whatever you need to make that time comfortable.
In July it can be HOT in the lower altitudes, easily hitting 30ºC (86ºF). At higher altitudes, temps will be milder but the sun can be deceptively strong. So, slap on the sunscreen, bring hats & umbrellas, and try to find a spot to watch the action out of the sun. Also bring plenty of water and some snacks.
Lastly it’s a really nice idea to bring along some chairs (e.g. light, collapsible camping chairs) so you can be comfortable while you wait.
Our Experience (Stage 16)
We chose the relaxed experience of seeing Le Tour pass through a small country town in the middle of the week.
We selected Stage 16 and used the official Tour website to work out that the riders would be passing through the town of Paihles between 1:30-1:45pm. It’s a teeny (tiny!) town, so we knew we wouldn’t have any problems finding a spot to park or watch.
We arrived just 1/2 hour before the riders, parking easily just outside of town and walking in with our chairs to the center of town. We followed the bikers in real time on the website, saw the helicopters when they got close and moments later stood up to cheer the peleton as they came through.
It all happened SO FAST!!
The bikers flew past us in a mad pack, just feet away from the pavement. The small crowd of folks watching (not many of us) cheered and shouted enthusiastically, snapping photos or film as quickly as we could. I saw the first rider, and literally ONE minute later the rest of the pack had passed (click the video to see it “live”). There were a few other stragglers who passed after that, but that was literally it. WOW!
It was a super fun, super short outing and I’d definitely do it again!
Have you seen The Tour? Do you have any other tips to share? Do feel free to comment below!!
Useful External Links:
- Tour De France Official website: THE place for everything related to The Tour
- FreeWheeling France: A FAB site about bicycling in France, including seeing The Tour
- Our Tour: UK-based motorhomers who’ve seen The Tour multiple times in their motorhome. Great blog.