Watch the Tour de France
I watch professional athletes on TV and they look impressive but still think that maybe if I tried I might get close to what they do even though I know realistically that there isn’t a chance. Well whatever illusion I had was completely shattered when I stood at the top of the 12km climb of the Port de Bales on Stage 16 of the Tour de France. Surrounded by cycle nuts who were roaring ‘Allez, Allez’ and in a crazy excitable atmosphere. Now my drinking wine and sitting in the sun for the previous 4hrs probably wouldn’t be the style of an elite cyclist but I don’t care now as I have given up after watching all 160 riders cycle over that summit. The Tour de France must be the hardest race in the world but it’s one of the easiest to watch.
After a stroke of luck finding out that I had forced holidays when Le Tour was on and with my interest spiked having seen the Giro D’Italia (world’s second biggest bike race) only a month before in Ireland I was off to the epicentre of cycling and to two mountain stages in the Pyrenees to see for myself whether it really was hard or if I took out my mountain bike would I manage to hang onto the peloton. Flight taken, car rented, onto Toulouse and then Bagneres-de-Luchon in the heart of the Pyrenees very close to the Spanish border.
How to Watch the Tour de France – Being There
Information on road closures is very hard to come by and I couldn’t find any either in English or in French so we winged it and it worked out well. See the bottom for more info. We knew we were in the right area when the amount of cyclists on the road increased with every kilometre the nearer we got to Luchon. Stage 16, from Carcassonne to Luchon, was the longest on the Tour de France this year at 238km which culminated in a huge 12km HC climb (average 7.7% steepness) at the 200km mark. Each mountain or climb is categorised with category 4,3,2,1 and finally HC indicating the hardest. So this one was a toughie. We drove up to near the top of the Port de Bales mountain 5 hrs before the Tour was due and no other car came by after us so we were lucky. After getting our bearings and barely a parking spot on the side of a cliff, a celebratory glass of wine from our box of wine and having the baguettes packed, we headed for the summit. The summit was like a music festival. Caravans everywhere, tents, flags bikes, beer, music. The view from the top was awesome and just like I had seen on television. We could see 2 or 3 hairpins below us with the road covered in graffiti and 4hrs before the race there were people lined all along. Time for sunshine and more wine.
Many people cycle to the top as the road closure is much later for bikes but this is where the cracks started in my illusions. These people were really struggling. Some didn’t have much of a grimace and were methodically pounding on the pedals but others were barely able to keep the bike moving. The crowd then got involved and shouted allez and clapped and yahooed which spurred them on to make the final 300mtrs. But overall the pace was what I would have expected, barely a walking pace. Understandable after a 12km (8mile) climb. Watching the Tour de France is very relaxing. A lot of sitting around, reading, drinking and eating.
The fun started with the caravan arriving 2hrs before the Tour de France proper. This is all the sponsors in funny looking wagons throwing free stuff to everybody on the side of the road. With so many on the roads edge I nearly got hit by vehicles several times and nearly got into a row with a neighbour over some mini rolls! Caps, food, key rings, vouchers, bracelets and even washing up liquid is thrown out. A lot of sh!te! This of course is only to keep you distracted until the tour comes.
There are no facilities on the top of these mountains so going to the toilet is quite an adventure. No trees really so the best you can hope for is to go far enough away so that people can’t see unless they have binoculars. I’m no judge of crowds but I’d say about 8,652 people could see me take a tinkle in the amphitheatre of hairpins before the race came! Quite a sight when relieving yourself!
How to Watch the Tour de France – The Peloton Arrives
And as the anticipation rises and people get more and more vocal even though nothing is happening you know it’s close. Then a helicopter arrives flying barely above the ground, then a car, a motorbike, another helicopter, police motorbikes and suddenly they come. The crowd goes mental as they come into view although they are 2 hairpins away. There is a breakaway of 4 riders and within seconds they pass us and shatter my illusions to smithereens. They are flying it. Not just going faster than normal people I watched earlier but quadruple their speed. These guys not only have cycled around 200km every day for almost 16 days but on the day I was watching them they had cycled 200km first and then had to do this climb to the summit of Port de Bales. I would barely be able for the 200km OR the climb. No wonder these guys were on drugs. As these guys sprinted past me and the eager crowd parted like the Red Sea as they arrived. A minute passed until the next group of riders and then on and on. As this was a tough stage there was a lot of spreading out among the riders with some at the back (the kind I would aspire to) struggling with ugly grimaces on their faces. Most of them grabbed newspapers off supporters on the sideline as they neared the summit. This is to soak up some of the sweat so they don’t get cold on the decent when they near 100km/hr (60mph). A little girl in front of me was like a paperboy she was giving out so many whereas nobody wanted my news.
Then quick as a flash all the bikes, cars and motorbikes were gone and that was it. 5 hours of relaxing for 10minutes of bicycles. It may sound a little crazy but it is worth it. To be there and see it was brilliant. The jubilant atmosphere, the roaring and fun people were having and of course to see the Tour de France up close. You may be tempted to go to the finish line to see who wins but on the flat the cyclists go at 45km/hr and sprinting near the finish at about 70km/hr so you can barely tell the colours of their jerseys at that speed. The place to be is the mountains when you can run alongside them (if there is room) and see their faces as they suffer. I wouldn’t do it for 3 weeks but for a few days it’s brilliant. How bad is some wine, sunshine and watching the Tour de France?
Information on the Tour de France – Practicalities
What is it?: The biggest, most prestigious and toughest bike race in the world. The route changes every year but approximately 3,500km (2,200miles) over 3weeks in July always finishing in Paris, France.
Aren’t they all on drugs?: The answer is no but it is a good question. In the nineties and up to the Lance Armstrong era yes they were but these days there is much stricter testing. All riders now have a ‘blood passport’ and any deviation from what you gave originally can get you banned which is better than just testing for one specific drug. But of course you can never say never.
Where is the best place to see a stage?: The best place to get a close up of the riders is on an incline so whether that is in the mountains or on an incline on a flat stage. They are going much slower so you get a good view and can even run beside them. The downside of this is waiting around in the sun (if that is a downside) and not seeing the rest of the race on TV. If you wait at the finish which is usually in a town you can watch the razzamataz on TV but it will almost be impossible to see any of the riders as they will be going so fast.
What is a good length of time to see the Tour de France?: For me 3 days would be enough. As there is a lot of waiting around which is great but I wouldn’t be able to do nothing for a week. If sitting in the sun, reading a book and drinking wine is your thing you could see the whole 3 weeks!
When do road closures start before a race?: I found this information very difficult to come by in advance. On main roads the road closures are rolling and are only for 2-3hrs but on mountain stages and on the mountain roads it is much longer. In my experience the road is closed up to 6hrs before the arrival of the riders if going over a peak. The road will be open to cyclists for much longer closing approximately 2.5hrs before the race.
How do I find out the route and where to be?: The route of the Tour de France is announced months in advance and the route, stage profile etc are all on www.letour.fr/us/#