Watching the Tour de France in person is a magical experience. The Tour is the most famous cycling event in the world and you get the chance to experience the electric atmosphere and history being made in front of your eyes.
Yes, the television coverage and aerial shots of chateaus, mountains and charming villages are fantastic, but being on the ground is something else. Following the Tour de France and spectating it live is something special.
Epic Road Rides reader, Ben Davies, knows quite a bit about this - he's planned trips for him and his friends to spectate the Tour de France every year since 2016. He has kindly written this DIY Tour de France bike tour/spectator guide to help make it easier for anyone wanting to do the same.
Ben says: “My first year following the Tour was spent chasing my tail around France due to being “over enthusiastic” in my estimation of what was involved. I hope my mistakes will help me to assist so you can avoid the same pitfalls!”.
So without further ado, here’s Ben’s Tour de France spectator guide. Enjoy!
1. How do you decide which stages of the Tour de France to watch in person?
My usual starting point is to look at the route map and the location of the stages. I look for a number of stages that are close to a central location in order to avoid too much travel.
From there I look for well known places and try and plan a cycle route for us taking in “icons” and as much of each stage as we can get away with (before getting booted off the course – more on that below!).
We’ve watched everything from a Grand Depart to flat sprint stages and stages in the high mountains too – but these days we tend to miss out long flat stages as there’s not a lot of action. The peloton comes past at a rate of knots so you don’t get to see a great deal.
Most week-long trips would allow you to fit in each type of stage, though our favourites are the mountains. You can get close to the action, test yourself out with the riding and get enough time to see the riders pass slowly enough to pick individual favourites out. The publicity caravan also passes slowly enough to give more chance of being able to pick up some Tour souvenirs (AKA “Tour tat”)!
One of my top tips is to think about the riders’ rest days. For example, last year I did a bit of research in the Roadbook (more info below) and found the various hotels the teams were allocated. I decided Mr Cavendish and team Di Data would benefit from our company the following day. We got up early and went by the team hotel to check things out. After a chat with the mechanics, who were busy working on the bikes, we discovered the guys would be setting off around 10:00am on a “spin”. After some breakfast we made our way back to the hotel car park and joined the team for a ride round Lake Annecy – spectacular! We also saw Movistar and AG2R out with groups of fans too. This was one of my favourite days ever on a bike!
A note of warning: if you do this, use your common sense. Give the riders room to do what they are there to do – ride. Don’t get in their group or too close as they don’t want you to be responsible for a crash. Don’t be too pushy and pester them for selfies and autographs. When the moment looks right, then ask, preferably either at the start or end, not whilst they are taking a nature break (as someone did when we were there…)!
2. What's the best way of getting to the Tour from the UK?
Travelling across the Channel to France can be fairly cheap especially on the more unpopular timed crossings. However, be warned: the ferry companies often seem to raise the prices when the Tour is on as they know more people will want to cross. Book early!
I use www.aferry.co.uk to book crossings as soon as the dates/routes/plan becomes clear.
For planning your trip across France, ViaMichelin gives cost options and alternative routes for specific vehicles.
3. How do you find out detailed information on each Tour de France stage?
I always download the “Official Roadbook” (the one issued to the teams) that becomes available on the Velorooms website.
The Roadbook shows profiles, timings, road closures, team hotels – the lot! It’s a fantastic resource.
I usually print off the pages for the week we’re doing and take the relevant pages each day so I can refer back to them regarding locations and times etc.
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4. How do you decide where to stay?
Once I’ve decided how long we’ve got and what area we want to focus on, I try to find a few possible locations spread over a few days of the Tour being in the particular area.
I use Google maps try and make sure the location to park the motorhome and base ourselves in is central to the routes we're going to watch. I use www.searchforsites.co.uk which is a specific motorhome parking app to search for recommended parking spots for the motorhome. However, during the Tour, I’ve found most towns and villages are very relaxed about parking presumably as they know you’re not going to be there too long.
I’ve previously parked in sports centres, supermarket and railway station car parks with no problems at all. I’ve been welcomed into strangers’ houses and even joined a village street party (at their request) to celebrate the Tour passing through that day. It was great - we were fed and plied with beer/wine!
Of course, if you’re not in a motorhome it’ll still be a similar process: you’ll be looking for accommodation that’s central to the stages you want to watch.
Example: in 2018, we drove from Calais down to Annecy for the Tour's rest day there (more on rest days above!). From there, a central point somewhere near Annecy around Albertville and Bourg St Maurice worked well, giving us opportunities to ride out to each day’s route, take in a climb or two and catch a start and a finish whilst not needing to move the motorhome between stages. It meant we could enjoy cycling each day, usually taking in as much of the route as we could, and avoid too much travelling.
Don’t do what I did in my first year spectating the Tour de France. Due to bad motorhome positioning, we ended up travelling each night until after midnight trying to catch the next day’s stage. After watching the stage, we had to cycle back, wash, change, load the bikes and travel hundreds of miles plus try and eat somewhere along the way! It wasn’t much fun!
5. How do you find accommodation and bike hire for your Tour de France spectator tour?
If you’re not in a motorhome, be aware that hotels and guest houses will get booked up very quickly once the route details are released by the organisers around October of the preceding year.
In terms of bike hire, we’ve always taken our own bikes, but I’ve had friends who tried to hire bikes at Mt Ventoux over a Tour de France weekend and found they were sold out until the day after (when there were plenty available!). Admittedly this was an extremely busy location, but I think most places get booked up quickly when the Tour is in town. Again, book early!
6. How do you get to the Tour de France route on the day?
My advice is to cycle to the route and along as much of it as possible in order to scout out the best place to watch from (more on this below).
I’ve found advertised Tour de France road closures are usually not too strict for cycling to your chosen viewpoint as they are meant for motor vehicles. That said, there are some very over-enthusiastic gendarmes that won’t let you past their posts once the “fermée” or “route barée” time kicks in. They usually shout “pied” (walk) which we do until out of sight before hopping back on and continuing (if safe to do so) for as far as we can... Obviously we stay vigilant and if we hear any sirens, traffic or the caravan is near we dismount and get out of the way immediately.
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7. Do you have any tips for picking your spot to spectate the stage?
Places on iconic climbs such as Mt Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez etc get filled up very quickly, especially near the finish line.
We generally aim to ride as much of the climb/route as possible early on whilst looking for good viewpoints, bars, cafés or any vantage points (rocky outcrops or overlooking gardens etc) that would be good as the peloton passes.
It’s then fairly easy to drop back down to our chosen spot on that day’s route once we’ve completed as much of the route as we can. The beauty of having the bikes is that if our chosen spot turns out not to be good enough then we can move on to another option.
Check the Roadbook. For example, the “feed zone” offers a different experience of the Tour and a chance to chat with soigneurs and watch them interact with their teams. Feed zones also have areas where bidons are to be thrown away by the riders. Sometimes they’re not that busy meaning there’s plenty of bidons to go around. The soigneurs sometimes have “spare” bidons and musettes that the riders didn’t or couldn’t take whilst in the zone. Often, they’re not interested in carting them about or won’t get another chance to pass them to their riders, so will hand them out once the peloton has passed.
Another thing to look out for is if the route does a loop and this will allow you to see the peloton in action more than once. For example you watch from point A then as they cycle more of the loop you can use the Roadbook to check the times and cycle to point B to catch them again.
Also look out for large car parks at a depart/arrivee village. These are often used to stock up the caravan with goodies and provide a great opportunity to blag some swag.
Avoid the crowds.
If a stage finishes on top of a mountain there is sometimes no access for the team coaches/trucks who are left at the foot of the climbs. The riders have to make their own way back down to the coaches by cycle – blowing their whistles so the crowds part - and it’s quite easy to wait a while and join them as they make their way back down. We’ve ridden down off Planche des Belles Filles chatting with various stars – very memorable!
8. What time should you get in position to watch the Tour come through?
This depends on how busy the location is. For example, Alpe d’Huez fills up from first thing in the morning, whilst lesser known stages are easy to get a spot on up to about an hour before the peloton comes through.
Occasionally we have been blocked by gendarmes and have been made to stay exactly where they say, but even then we’ve managed to move around a bit and found a better spot.
9. What should you take with you each day?
This depends on the length of your ride and what’s on route. Use Google Earth to do a bit of research beforehand and decide on supplies for your day.
There is normally a village of some sorts near to viewpoints where supplies can be bought, as well as local entrepreneurs that set up pop-up snack bars. However obviously they cannot be totally relied upon, so we also usually take some extra sandwiches and a few cans of pop/water in a rucksack which is replaced with Tour stuff (see below) as the day progresses.
Make sure to take a bag or rucksack to put all your “Tour tat” in! They they throw loads out as the caravan passes through and everybody loves a madeleine or an LCL branded cap, right?!
10. Do you have any tips for how to be a good Tour de France spectator and make the most of your day?!
We’ve all seen the videos and pictures of spectators causing crashes whilst watching the Tour. The following “rules” should help make sure you don’t get caught up in disaster.
On a more positive note, I’d also suggest not spending too much time focusing (get it?!) on your pictures/videos. The peloton passes quickly in most places and if you’re concentrating on getting images then you’ll miss them. There’s always chance for a few snaps, just try not to miss the main event!
Once the peloton, and more specifically the “broom wagon”, has gone through there will be a car with a flashing headboard telling you the road is re-opened. At this point you’re free to cycle away. Beware that the roads can be very busy and there are plenty trying to imitate the descending skills of their heroes, though usually nowhere near as good!
11. Any final thoughts?
Don’t forget that the Tour will only take in certain climbs in certain areas that you may be in too.
For example, it’s a shame to be on the doorstep of the Ballon d’Alsace and only go up Planche des Belles Filles. So do some research in the area you plan to visit and maybe even take a day off from the Tour to tick off some bucket list adventures.
Epic Road Rides gives great information (the France cycling guides are all here) and suggestions on various routes in your chosen area but www.cyclingcols.com and www.cycling-challenge.com can also be useful resources.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short guide and that it helps you avoid some of our early mistakes. If you would like any further information, then please just ask in the comments below. Safe travels and enjoy your trip!
Big thanks to Ben for all his Tour de France tips! There are some really useful pointers in here and we hope you use them to have a fantastic trip!
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(aka Corniche d’Or) loop