Watching the Tour de France

Seeing a live stage of the Tour de France live from the roadside is a bucket list experience for many keen road cyclists. Our love of cycling means we have been fortunate to see a few stages live. Here are some tips and information we have learnt along the way.

Fans lining the road with banners on the TDF Alpe d'Huez stage

When is the Tour de France?

Watching the Tour de France, or at least some of it, means you will need to be there in July and there is no getting around that. The 2020 Tour de France starts on Saturday 27 June in Nice and finishes on Sunday 19 July in Paris. In 2021 the Tour de France is starting on Friday 2 July in Copenhagen and finishing in Paris on Sunday 25 July.

Which stage to watch?

So you have made the decision, booked your holiday and are excited to be able to go to the Tour de France. Now is the time to do some planning. You need to work out exactly which stages to watch and where to be. The Tour de France is held over three weeks with 21 stages. The stage start is hosted somewhere different each year, and it traditionally always ends in Paris on the Champs Elysees. The route also always visits high mountain passes in both the Alps and Pyrenees and there is at least one time trial stage. Below are some tips for different stages to consider:

Stage Start

Getting to the starting town of the stage can be a great way to see the riders up and close and personal as they leave the team buses and get warmed up. Often the atmosphere can be quite relaxed at the stage start. You’ll be surprised at just how close you can get to the pros. If you are hoping to take photos with a pro or perhaps even get some autographs, the stage start is definitely a good option.

Time Trial /Prologue

Watching a time trial or prologue stage is a fantastic option, allowing you to see the pros over the course of a few hours. This likely includes seeing them warming up and perhaps even doing a reccy of the route. Are you into photography? If so these type of stages will allow you to really get that shot dialled in. We both have great memories of our first live Tour de France stage viewing which was of the Prologue in London in 2007.

Feed Zones

Positioning yourself just before or after the designated stage feed zones gives you an opportunity to score yourself a souvenir. Often the pros are discarding their empty bidons (water bottles) just prior to the feed zone. If you are lucky you may come away from the stage viewing with your own piece of Tour de France memorabilia.

Mountain Stage

Watching the pros duke it out on the slopes of the famous mountain climbs is really like nothing else. It comes as no surprise then, that these are often the most popular stages to watch roadside. The mountain stages bring with them a special kind of party atmosphere. Spectators are often camping out in their camper vans and tents for up to a week before the stage arrives in order to get the most advantageous viewing spot.

As a cycling fan there is something extra special about riding up the climb on these days. You will be joined along the way by many thousands of other fans. The other advantage of a mountain stage is that the pros won’t be going quite as fast as they do on the flatter roads. As the peloton can often be quite strung out, you will be able to see the riders whizzing past over the course of a perhaps a few minutes.

Stage Finish

Much like the stage start, the finish of a stage also has the benefit of being able to see the riders for that little bit longer. You can get quite close to the team bus areas where all the riders will congregate at the end. Being situated closer to the finish line also means you may be able to view the finish on larger screens televising the race live.

2013 TDF peloton riding the climb of Alpe d'Huez

Watching the riders race by is a sight to behold – even on the mountain stages the speeds at which they travel is hard to believe.

Road Closures

The roads of the race route normally operate on a rolling road closure. Getting to a viewing point on the stage can mean a bit of forward planning. The road closures are well publicised. Researching and studying the maps beforehand will determine the best way for you to arrive. Booking accommodation close to the stage you want to be watching does make it easier. It allows you to ride out to the roadside avoiding any car travel. The French Gendarmes are typically quite lenient to those on bikes making their way along the route.

Prepare yourself for the crowds. The Tour de France is a popular event with some mountain stages alone seeing over a million people lining the road.

Tour Publicity Caravan

You may find yourself on the roadside with a few hours to kill before the peloton arrives. The Tour Publicity Caravan is a welcome distraction and a sight to behold in itself. Made up of all the sponsors of the event, it drives the route of each of the tour stages. There is lots of free merchandise, food, drinks and memorabilia being given away to the crowds waiting roadside.

It certainly provides for some excitement. This includes watching the odd argument amongst spectators fighting over plastic key rings and the like! Typically the Tour Publicity Caravan arrives approximately one hour prior to the riders. This will also give you an indication of how far the real action is.

Roadside Etiquette

One of the greatest things about cycling is how close you are to the action when watching a stage live. Often the riders are but only a few metres away from you. Cheering on your favourite riders and teams is definitely encouraged, but remember rider safety is paramount. It is very important to be giving the riders their due space whilst cheering them on. Running alongside the pros as they race by is fraught with danger and a definite no-no. Causing a crash due to being an overenthusiastic supporter is just not on.

Tour de france fans cheering riders on the side of the road

Watching the antics of the crowds at the tour is entertainment in itself.

Fans line the road of alpe d'huez waiting for the tdf riders

The big mountain stages often command a huge crowd. Here on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez in 2013 there were over 1 million people estimated to be watching from the climb.

Food and Drink

Due to the road closures you may find you are sat at the side of the road for the best part of a whole day. It’s well worth considering taking food and drink with you for the day. I remember the first time we watched a stage we hadn’t considered this at all. We were quite hungry and thirsty by the end of it. We have since learned our lesson! You will find many spectators will pack a picnic to enjoy for the day. This will often include a lot of wine and beer. On the larger mountain stages the Tour organisers place rubbish bags along the route. Be courteous, utilise these and dispose of your rubbish thoughtfully.

Bike rider prepared to watch a stage of the Tour de France French baguette packed in his backpack

Watching a Tour de France stage can see you on the roadside for hours – don’t forget to pack extra food with you!

TDF fan with a banner on the roadside

If you are planning on watching a stage why not plan ahead and take your own sign – a great way to be spotted by riders from your country and perhaps even T.V!

Atmosphere

The atmosphere roadside for the Tour de France is something to behold in itself. We have both commented that watching a stage live is more about the entertainment being provided by the crowds than the race. It really feels like a festival – especially if you are on the road on Bastille day – the French National day.

As stated earlier, it can be extremely crowded, more-so on the famous mountain climbs. Adding to the atmosphere it’s something to factor into in relation to making your way back home. Even when you have ridden to the stage, getting off the mountain on a bike can be a very slow going affair. You will be picking your way through literally thousands of people all around.

Cycling to and from the stage

We definitely recommend where possible riding to and from the stage. Using the bike as your form of transport is one of the most practical ways of getting to the most advantageous viewing spots. The road closures often work in your favour when you are on the bike. There is also something extra special about riding the climbs with fans lining the roads. Reading the painted slogans on the road you will have other roadside fans enthusiastically cheering you on.

For practical reasons we have personally always tried riding the climbs being featured a day or two before the riders are due to arrive. This allows you a more straightforward ride as on the stage itself the road is filled with spectators. Are you a strava fan? If you want to set a good time on the climb than definitely keep this in mind. On the day of the stage itself we normally choose to base ourselves on the lower slopes of the climb. This allows for an easier departure at the end and less crowds of people to ride through.

TDF Stage start

Attending a stage start will often allow you to get up quite close with the pros before they depart.

tour de france cycling spectator

Getting away from the crowds at the end of the stage takes patience and a little bit of time. Just accept it will be busy and make the most of it.

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