This article is from the Bicycles FAQ, by Mike Iglesias with numerous contributions by others.
From: Tom James <email@example.com>
A question was recently posted to r.b.r concerning ways to follow the
Tour de France. Here are a few comments about my own trips to France over
the last five years, which may be of relevance to people who want to
watch the race and have access to either a bike or a car.
I've seen the Tour every year since 1991, always in the Alps or the
Pyrenees. In addition, I've watched the Paris Stage in 1993/5, and the
British stages in 1994, so all in all, I've a fair amount of experience.
In 1991 and 1992 I watched as part of longer cycle tours in the Alps,
stopping off to watch in the course of a ride from one place to another
(in 1991 in the Arly Gorge, and in 1992 on the Galibier). On both
occasions, the combination of my own abilities (only averaging ca. 60
miles/day) and the Tour's itinery meant that seeing the race more than
once was not really feasible.
In 1993, 93 and 95 we (myself + 3 friends) organised things differently.
Basically, we took a car with the bikes on the roof and camped in the
vicinity of the tour. It was then normally possible to see two days of
racing (ie, somewhere near the end one day and near the beginning the
next) before moving on to a new campsite perhaps 100 or 150 miles away
to get another couple of days in. For example, in 1994, in addition to
the Brighton and Portsmouth stages, we also saw the tour on l'Alpe
d'Huez; on the Col de la Colombiere; on the Col de Joux Vert (2km from
the finish of the Avoriaz time trial) and at the stage start in Morzine.
Now some general notes. If you elect to see the Tour as we did by car and
bike, be prepared for some long days with a lot of climbing. Bear in mind
also that after the voiture balai has passed, it can still sometimes take
almost as long to descend a mountain as to get up, due to the large
number of pedestrians, cars, other cyclists etc also trying to get down.
This problem is compounded at mountain top finishes, because firstly the
field is spread over a long time (maybe 3/4hr from first to last rider)
and secondly because after the stage, all the Tour vehicles and riders
generally also come back down to the valley. For example, when we watched
on Alpe d'Huez, it was nearly 5.00pm before we got down to Bourg d'Oisans
and we then had a 40 mile ride with 1300m of climbing back over the
Lautaret to get to where we were camping in Briancon
Secondly, aim to get to the foot of any mountain you want to watch on at
least 2 hours in advance. Even then, you might find some policemen want
you to get off and walk. The attentiveness of policemen to this detail
varies widely. For example, in Bourg d'Oisans, one policemen wanted us to
walk, even though we were 2km from the foot of Alpe d'Huez; then 100m
further on a second gendarme told us more or less to stop mucking around,
if we had bikes then why weren't we riding them! Similarly, one Gendarme
in 1995 gave an absolute flat refusal to let us even start on the climb
of the Madeleine (admittedly we were quite late, and the first 8km are
very very narrow) whereas on the Colombiere, I rode up in the middle of
the caravane publicitaire. (NB this latter trick has oodles of street
cred as a) about 50 million people cheer your every pedal stroke, b) the
caravan showers you with freebies and c) you can beg chocolate from the
Poulain van and pretend you're a domestique sent back to the team car to
pick up extra food - and let's face it, being even a domestique is way
above what 99.9% of the readers of rbr can aspire too!) If you travel by
car and then hope to walk up, the roads get blocked even before they are
completely closed - for example, in 1995 we ran into a terrible traffic
jam south of Grenoble on the day of the Alpe d'Huez stage whilst we were
heading south, though fortunately we avoided it by going via Sisteron
rather than Gap, as had been the initial plan.
Thirdly, come prepared for all weathers and with plenty of food and
water. Both TT's I've been to (outskirts of Paris in 1993, and Avoriaz in
1994) took over 5 hours to pass, and even a run of the mill mountain
stage may take 2 hours from first vehicle in the publicity caravan to the
"Fin de Course" vehicle. The weather can change markedly - for example,
at Avoriaz, we started the day in hot sunshine with girls sunbathing in
bikinis, and finished in freezing rain. So make sure you have some warm
clothing, even on an apparently hot day; plenty of water and plenty of
food. Remember, once in place , you can't easily nip off to the local shop!
All of the above was written from the point of view of watching in the
mountains. I guess flat stages are easier as there are more small roads
around, and the crowds are not so concentrated at certain key points. For
Paris, it's best to travel into the centre by RER/RATP and then walk; you
may need to wait several hours if you want a place on the barriers on the
Champs Elysees, but at the Jardin des Tuileries end of the circuit, the
pressure is not so bad.
Finally, is it worth it? Yes! OK, you only get a fleeting glimpse of the
riders, but it is all the incidentals that make it fun - spinning yarns
with Thierry on the Galibier; riding up the Colombiere in the publicity
caravan; being at the exact point on l'Alpe d'Huez where Roberto Conti
made his winning attack (and hence being on Television); seeing Zulle
ride effortlessly near the top of the Colombiere, 5 minutes up on
everyone else; getting a grin from "Stevo" on l'Alpe d'Huez when a bunch
of Ockers I was with shouted "hello Aussie!" as he rode past; and many
many more in similar vein. Go! - you'll have a lot of fun!