After the Tour Passes By
One of the best ways to enjoy the races after the riders pass by is to find a local café or bar with a TV and then watch the end of the race while partaking of a few adult beverages with your group. On our Pyrenees tour last year, several people in the group listed as one of their favorite memories of the week our time at the bar watching the American George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s teammate, win at the finish of the penultimate mountain stage. We viewed the riders earlier that day in person from the Col de Menthe, a Category 1 climb which was not far away. Afterwards we saw the finish on TV, and the bar was filled with local French people, as well as groups of Australians and of course us Americans. The cheers when Hincapie pulled away to win were raucous, and even the local Frenchman were laughing at the enthusiasm of the American group. When Armstrong’s main rivals were on the screen, a chorus of resounding “boos” filled the room, and this brought many laughs. After the finish we stopped on our way back to our hotel next to a field of sunflowers and took pictures in the field amongst the flowers. I’m sure our tour guests won’t forget the memories of that day for a long time. The bar owner enjoyed our company as well and invited us back (he did well that day), and we’ll certainly be there again next year with our group.
Starts and Finishes of Stages
It’s good to remember that the Tour de France is the largest spectator sporting event in the world. Everyone wants to see the riders at the starts and finishes. Unless our hotel happens to be in the town of a start or finish where we can walk to the event, we generally try to avoid these. The crowds are literally overwhelming, and just to get a view of the podium award ceremony is to risk being squeezed like a sardine in a can. I say this from personal experience. It really isn’t worth the effort unless one has VIP tickets to the fenced-off areas at the starts and finishes of stages.
If you are hoping to come home with a boat-load of souvenirs, keep this in mind: buy them as soon as possible. If you wait to purchase them later, the stands and vehicles will be gone. It is amazing how fast the vendors pull up stakes and leave after the last rider passes their location. Remember, the Tour de France lasts for over 3 weeks, and the vendors are off in no time to beat the peleton to the next location.
These are hard to come by. The riders are protected form the crowds, and even if you are near them at a start or finish, they’re usually riding and are not approachable. Some tours have agreements with former Tour riders, and in that situation, of course, one can get autographs and pictures with the former riders. We are expecting to include this experience in our 2006 tours. Unless your group is in the same hotel with a participating team, an unlikely happenstance, it’s hard to get autographs, so set your expectations accordingly and hope for the best.
Bathroom Facilities (or lack thereof)
These are available in towns, and a few areas outside of starts and finishes. Oftentimes, however, there is nothing nearby. At the St. Etienne time trial in the 2005 Tour, the only “facilities” were in the corn field adjacent to the road from which we viewed the riders pass. This was not a big problem for the men, and it was a little surprising to see how well the ladies adapted to this predicament. They realized there was no other choice and didn’t complain, even laughing about the situation while heading off to the corn field in pairs (a guard was advisable). This year we have found a product that might offer a little better alternative called P-Mate. With this apparatus ladies can void themselves while standing. (I’m not making this up. ) This item is then put into a plastic bag for later disposal. Of course French bathrooms do not have the best reputation in any case, but that is perhaps another article for another day.
Is It Worth It?
Apparently the answer is a resounding “yes”. One of our guests on our Pyrenees tour last summer summed it up by writing, “This is the coolest thing we have ever done!”. Many others express the same sort of reaction as well. With the right set of expectations, that should hopefully be the state of mind of just about everyone who wishes to see one of the world’s great sporting events in person. The charm of France, the excellent wine and cuisine, and the beautiful French countryside coupled with the country’s history are added bonuses as well. And a souvenir on your desk or office wall showing that you made it to the top of the Alp d’Huez is not a bad trophy either.
Walt Ballenberger is founder of Beaux Voyages , which provides active tours in France including Tour de France bike tours. He has lived and worked in France and speaks the language fluently.