Grab a roadside seat to see the best of Le Tour
The Tour de France holds a special place for many but cycling journalist and author Isabel Best says the TV version is a pale imitation and the race is best seen alongside the millions of fans on the roadside
It is July. The roadside verge is sprinkled with harebells, caramel cows graze green meadows and across the valley snow-tipped mountains shimmer in the blue haze.
The soundtrack is a string of Dutch techno hits, played full blast from a PA rigged to a camper van. The smell of burnt sausage mingles with the odours of green mountain pasture, warm beer and hot tar. A whooping gang of men and women, in orange wigs and T-shirts, is engaged in a rather uneven congo.
Ah! The Tour de France! I wait all year for this moment and I’m not alone. Every metre of this 20km ascent is jammed with a carnival crowd of sunburnt flag-waving fans.
Watching the Tour live is a little ridiculous; you spend all day locating and staking out your perfect spot and then the riders shoot past faster than you can cry, ‘Contador!’ Half the time you can’t even see who’s who. It takes no more than 20 minutes, usually much less, for the entire peloton including stragglers to go by.
But to watch it on TV is to miss the visceral thrill of the champions passing a metre or two in front of your nose. TV sanitises everything, makes it look easy. On the road, you get a sense of what the riders feel (but you also get to enjoy the scenery – all they see is the backside of the rider in front.)
Go the whole hog and cycle up yourself and you become instantly aware of the gradients, the heat, the madcap crowd. And yes, cynics, even if you believe all the pros are on drugs, the speeds they achieve are still mindboggling.
On the roadside, you can feel the significance of a 30 second interval between riders. You
can see who is still fresh, who isn’t. You see the hollow eyes of someone having a bad day. You appreciate the accelerations of those going on the attack. You see all the riders – not just those up front.
TV is two-dimensional by comparison. And when history is being made, like when Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner in the race’s 100+ years, you get to say, “I was there.”
Of course it’s also about the party; for all the glamour of the race itself, the roadside reality is endearingly tacky, a coming together of three million fanatics.
When the publicity caravan passes ahead of the riders, its tired-looking dancers flinging out freebies from its carnival floats, you’ll find yourself lunging in communion with all types – the unwashed campers, the earnest bean-pole with his yellow jersey dreams, the lobster pink teen in hot pants and bikini top, the retired civil servant – and your efforts will be blessed with rubber wristbands, cheap polka dot cycling caps, plastic wrapped madeleines, or key rings that light when squeezed.
Having come down from the mountain, you may find yourself spending the night driving back to Paris for the final stage, the gigantic Lion mascot on top of the Credit Lyonnais float in your rearview mirror, a team truck transporting bikes on your left, a dusty Renault with the Basque flag in front.
A warm feeling of largesse spreads through you for your brothers and sisters on the road. You’ve been through so much together. What will you do when it’s done?
TOP TOUR TIPS
Head to the mountains, or sharp ramps and tight turns where riders must slow. Not descents: you will not see anything and you do not want to catch a rider crashing at 90kph. On that note, be careful where you stand on sharp corners.
- Get on your bike
Take your bike to a topsy-turvy land where drivers are banished and cyclists rule. You do not have to ride that far to find a good viewing spot and climbs are not always as fierce as you think. Set out super early!
- Think laterally
The Tour is a moving town with its own police, post and bank plus 4,500 people so hotels are booked out months ahead. The route is shut to traffic at dawn, if not the night before so you must research public transport, hiking trails, connecting sideroads. Ring the tourist office if stumped for a bed – homeowners temporarily turn B&B.
It is obvious, but don’t forget sun protection, warm layers if up high, food and plenty of water. You will be outside a long time. Bring a copy of l’Equipe and ensure your smart phone (or portable TV) has plenty of juice.