And in 15 seconds the riders were gone. The culmination of a Tour de France dream that started years ago is more than just this slice in time. You saved and convinced loved ones that the big trip to Europe needed to include a stage or two of the Tour de France. In unfamiliar territory, you planned ahead with accommodation the perfect vantage point to watch the tour – seasoned fans know that the ascents are best, but the best climbs are also packed. An earlier morning start is followed by a long hike, miles up the hill until you find your spot and just have to wait.
You are joined by cycling fans of every nation and you know it is starting to get real as the noise of the nearing caravan breaks through. The crowd frenzy begins with the first float in the Tour de France caravan, loud and excited French voices and music booms as fans reach into the air for the small packets of detergent, snacks or branded hats from sausage brands that are being thrown from passing vehicles. You never see this on TV but it is a real experience for the uninitiated. The the most prized giveaway are the polka dot t-shirts and caps branded by E.Leclerc, a French supermarket chain. If you are in a busy area with lots of fans, you have to jostle for these goodies. But if you are in a quieter area, promos thrown from the caravan are few and far between. When the caravan has passed, you get the feeling that the riders should be due in any moment.. but no. The caravan is timed 2 hours ahead of the riders so now you have to wait.
But then an official car passes and your heart beats… then nothing.
Then another car, a team car or two, then nothing. You get used to seeing vehicles passing and buzz in the crowd grows. A ripple of excitement passes through, fans following the race on live feeds react to a crash or a breakaway. You start to share words and food and tales with other spectators. Somehow the language barrier is easy to overcome and everyone is curious about Australia and the Aussies riding in the tour.
As the sun beats down, the frequency of passing race vehicles starts to increase, police, motos and more official cars. With up to seven helicopters following the riders, you know the race is getting closer when the helicopters draw nears. Then you spot the lead car and all the fans have stretched their heads for their first glimpse. When you are lucky with the stage and with your vantage point, a breakaway and strung-out peloton will give you more to watch. If not, the riders come and are then out of sight in seconds leaving you with a trail of team cars and support vehicles to close up the tail-end.
Nothing beats real race immersion like television. Even though you are not part of it, TV is the best way to really follow the race. But nothing beats being at the Tour de France and really being part of it.
Here are a few things you can do to get the most out of it.
The tour route is available well in advance so you can plan your accommodation and stage visit. There is even a time schedule so that you can see when the riders are expected to pass. As a rule of thumb, even on a long stage, it is often only possible to view the riders pass once (and difficult to then jump and view riders at multiple locations).
Traffic will be chaos
With the official route closed, alternative routes will be busy. Be early and be patient.
It will typically be hard to get food and drinks – bring everything you need. If you need a folding chair, bring it.
Be prepared for the weather
Sunscreen and hat. Bring rain gear and warm gear if the weather could turn bad
Pick an ascent with a view
Flat and downhill stages means the peloton is moving at 40kmh+ and ascent, especially steep ascents will give you more to see. The best positions will be crowded and sometimes the crowd is 5-deep, especially at summits or the most famous locations. But look for locations like switchbacks which give you a view of the approaching riders from a distance and the close-up views as they pass. Be prepared to hike for a while as there won’t be options to park a car on the route (or access to the route).
Ride your bike if you can
Although the roads are closed to cars, you can usually still ride a bike and get through. Be early because officials will eventually move people off the roads. In areas where there are barriers, the security will be tighter and you have to stay behind the barriers. Before and after race passes, busy areas will packed with other riders and people walking, so don’t expect it to be fast, but you do get to feel some of the pain the pros will go through.
You can’t stop other people from being idiots, but you can provide the vehicles and the pros with enough space and respect.
On TV you get to see the crashes and pivotal race situations; Chris Froome running up a hill, a decisive attack or fans getting a riders bidon. With hundreds of thousands of fans lining the roads, it will probably just be normal and the riders will not react to you, but that’s ok because you are still part of it.
The stage start and end
At the rider presentation ahead of each stage you will see more of the riders but not experience the race. Good spots at the start and finish are taken early. Media and also VIP areas have priority which makes it very difficult to get close. If you are very early, you can be rewarded with the best spectator spot and look out for big-screens that also let you follow the race because you have a very long wait.
Meeting the pros
Look out for ex-pros and media personalities. The riders tend to be shielded and when they are not doing media interviews, often make their way quickly to the team buses at the end of a stage. Fans near the team buses may be rewarded with a wave if the riders are on the trainers doing a warm-up or warm-down and maybe even a hello. Often your favourite rider quickly gives his bike to the team staff and disappears into the bus.
Enjoy the whole experience
The Tour de France spectator experience is not just the short moment in time when the riders pass, it begins with the your dream and planning and every step you take to be there. It is about being in France (or wherever the tour is passing) and enjoying the culture and people. And it is about the drama trying to get to your location, then settling on another place that is just as good. It is about enjoying the buildup with other cycling fans from across the worlds and cheering for all the riders.