Why Watch the Tour de France in Person (Plus Tips)
"We must be getting close," I said as we turned our campervan into an idyllic French village at the foot of the Pyrenees. Streamers in the shape of tiny bike jerseys hung from balconies, as did a banner that said "Merci la Tour!" in the village square. I assumed it was for the new roads -- the organization will often repave the roads on their route.
After we left the village, we snaked up a mountain road towards Port de Balès. Every kilometer or so, a sign marked our progress "3% de grade, 15km au sommet","5% de grade, 12km au sommet". I watched the steepness of the mountain go up... 7%... 10%... 11%... until finally, less than 1km from the summit, the grade tapered off and the view opened up above a vast valley.
We parked the van. "This," Jon said, "is where we'll watch the Tour de France."
Although we had originally come to simply see the race, we learned there are so many more reasons to come see the Tour de France in person. Read on for reasons why you should go see the Tour de France and how we planned our trip.
You'll See Some of the Most Beautiful Places in France
Our viewing spot was strategic. We chose to park on the second to last -- but tallest -- mountain of the 12th stage of the 2017 tour, Port de Balès.
"If we watch them on the flats, they'll just zip right by us. We'll only see them for a few seconds. At least on a mountain stage they'll have to go a bit slower," Jon reasoned. He was right.
What we hadn't planned for, though, was how beautiful the area would be. Climbing to the top of Port de Balès, an 8,000 foot peak nestled in the Pyrenees, rewarded us with views of crevassed valleys, dramatic winding roads, rolling fog, and clear starry skies at night. We parked our van near the top (on a somewhat precarious perch), and kept our van door open to enjoy the view.
The Tour de France riders aren't the only thing worth seeing on the route.
Thousands of Fans = Giant Party
RVs, campervans, cars, and tents lined the sides of the narrow mountain road. Outside of them, people. People dangling their legs off the edge of their car trunks. People sitting in plastic chairs with plastic tables, drinking bottles of wine — because, after all, this is France. People eating sandwiches, people barbecuing, and each of them waiting. Waiting for hours — even days — to catch the few minutes in which the cyclists of the Tour de France would fly by.
In the meantime, though, we had each other — the other fans and amateur cyclists who had flocked to the mountain — to celebrate with. At the top of the mountain, the festivities were in full swing. It seemed as though the whole village had come to eat brochettes, drink beer, and watch fireworks in anticipation of the race the next day.
The fans created an energy you can't get while watching the Tour on TV. The collective excitement was perhaps the biggest reason to turn off our TVs and line up alongside the road.
You Can Bike the Route Before the Tour
Although police will close the roads off to bikes about an hour before the Tour de France comes through, non Tour de France riders are allowed to bike the route up until that point. The day we arrived, dozens of cyclists were out, riding all or some of the route. On the day of, we -- along with hundreds of other cyclists -- were able to sample the route before they shut down roads.
Further, the area around Port de Bales has some incredible cycling routes that aren't part of the Tour. It's definitely worth it to stick around and explore the area on two wheels.
... And It Was Extra Awesome as a Woman
But, biking along the route was extra amazing as a lady cyclist.
On the morning of the ride, we were back at the bottom of the mountain, staring at the beginning of a 20 kilometer climb. We start to ride, first gently, following the curve of a stream, across stone bridges, past a summer lodge. “This isn’t so bad,” I think and I pick up the pace.
Jon moved in front of me and the mountain began to get steeper. This is where the spectators had (smartly) started to cluster. Catch the riders as they’re going up the mountain; they’ll be slower.
Jon, about 20 feet ahead of me, passed an elderly couple eating lunch outside their RV. They watch him silently. Then, me. The woman perks up and smiles, “allez la fille!” she shouts. I give a tired wave and smile back.
Another kilometer. Another cheer. And another, and another. “Allez la fille!” You go girl! The entire way up the mountain.
Women aren't allowed to ride in the Tour de France, so seeing us among the amateur cyclists sparked excitement that the others (re: men) didn't. It was so encouraging. Empowering.
You Get to Watch the Tour (Obviously)
Then of course, there was the race itself. We had chosen our spot in hopes that we'd be able to catch a glimpse of the ride, far off in the distance, making their way up the peak. However, an hour before the parade that precedes the riders, a thick fog rolled in over the valley.
Despite the fog, we lined up with our neighbors at a switchback and waited for them to emerge. First, though, a parade of giant, ridiculous floats shaped as baguettes or topped with a giant statue of a biker passed us. Young men and women strapped to them in harnesses tossed free swag into the crowds." Now I understand why everyone's wearing the same hat on TV," Jon said, picking up an "official" Tour de France hat.
Then, the official tour car that leads the peloton drove up. That was our cue to line up and take our cameras out.
Swiftly, the peloton emerged from the fog. The crowd erupted into cheers. A cyclist tossed his water bottle at a fan. Fans held out newspapers for the cyclists to grab and stick under their jerseys to keep warm during the long, upcoming descent. A pause. And then another group.
"Those are the sprinters," Jon said, "really good on the flats, but not so much on climbs." They all looked like they'd had enough of this. Then finally, a few stragglers. Two here. Three there, battling it out. A longer pause. And one lone cyclist, clearly hating life, pulling up the rear. And that was it.
Logistics: Staying There, Getting There, and Renting Bikes
If you're interested in taking a trip to see the Tour de France in person, below are some helpful tips to help you plan:
Camping and campervans
- Chilicampers, pick up in Vic/Barcelona, drop off in Vic/Barcelona, 1050€ / week
- Indiecampers pick up and drop off throughout Spain, France, and Portugal, 918€ / week
Jon and I had rented a campervan through Chilicampers in Barcelona (actually, they're an hour north in Vic but can deliver vans to Barcelona for a fee of €30). Though they're not cheap, at 1050€ for a week during the high season, it still worked out to be what we would have spent on hotels and transportation -- but with the added freedom of having your home with you wherever you go.
An alternative campervan rental we looked into was Indiecampers. Since it's a larger chain, Indiecampers would have allowed us to pick up in Barcelona and drop off in San Sebastian, Lisbon, or somewhere in France for a fee. The only downside is the obnoxious, advertorial paint job. A week with them would have cost a little less, at 918€.
The cheapest and simplest option, though, would be to rent a normal sedan and pitch a tent outside the car.
How far in advance should you arrive?
We worried we wouldn't be able to find a spot to park our campervan if we arrived the day before, but found plenty of space. I don't think it would have been necessary to arrive two days in advance like we had considered.
Police will close the road to all vehicles several hours beforehand. If you're just coming up for the day, check around what time the riders are supposed to pass through (about 4pm in our case, since we were at the end of the stage) and get there well in advance.
- Pyrenees Bike Rental, Pau, France, 50€ per day
- Basque Country Cycling, San Sebastian, Spain, 30€ per day
Although there is a bike rental spot in nearby Pau, France called Pyrenees Bike Rental, we waited until the week before and everything was sold out. If we had rented with them, it would have been about 50€ per day for a nice road bike.
Instead, we rented bikes in San Sebastian, Spain from Basque Country Cycling since we knew we'd be going there before and after the Tour. It was 30€ per day per bike for a decent road bike with SPD pedals, patch kit, two spare tubes, and water bottles. The shop owners were super nice, and I'd definitely recommend renting from them if you're in the area.
What to pack
Since most of the camping and bike gear were included with our rentals, our packing list looked like it normally would for any week-long trip. However, a couple of additional things we brought included:
- Bike gear - We brought our own helmets, bike clothes, and shoes.
- Warm clothes - I brought a sweater and lightweight windbreaker from Columbia for easy layering.
- Camera - We travel with a Sony RX1.
- Baby wipes - Pick these up on a grocery store run before heading to the mountains.
- Good sunscreen - High altitude sun is no joke.
- Dr. Bronner's - This all-in-one soap is great for travel. Buy in bulk and use a reusable GoToob to bring some on the road with you.
- Flashlight - For biking trips, we actually bring our bike lights (the Urban 350) and use them as a flashlight if we need it.
Are You Planning to Go See the Tour in Person?
Watching the Tour de France in person doesn't even compare to seeing it on TV. The excitement of everyone around us, opportunity to bike the route beforehand, and camp out in a beautiful corner of France was just as much a part of the experience as the few minutes of watching the riders whiz by.
So, if you're going to watch the Tour de France in person, where will you go? Which stage will you watch? If you've been, what's one piece of advice you'd give others?
Special thanks to Jon Li for the amazing photos <3