Tour de France tips for watching live
Watching a live stage of the Tour de France in person 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. But, like anything, if you have not been before you will not be quite sure how it all works and what you need to do. In this article, we take you through how to watch the 2023 Tour de France in person based on our own experience of watching stages over the years.
The mountains are definitely where most people aim to go and watch a stage of the race and we highly recommend trying to get to a mountain stage. Not only are the riders going that little bit slower, but the peloton can be more spread out, or you might be lucky to see that decisive attack taking place. There are plenty of mountains in the 2023 Tour de France to choose from as the race is heading to all 5 of France’s mountain ranges.
This list of 12 tips for watching the Tour de France in person is based on our own experience of watching the race and includes some of the advice we were given when we went to our first Tour de France stage in 2013. Now living in the Pyrenees we were able to see a couple of stages in the 2022 Tour de France and we are already looking forward to 2023.
1. Plan accommodation and travel well ahead
The Tour de France route is announced in October each year and accommodation at the start and finish towns soon disappears as teams, organizers, journalists, TV crew and many others working in the race find somewhere to stay. Our tip would be to look for locations a short distance away from the start and finish lines to find somewhere to stay. But make sure you do this as early as possible.
When we visited France in 2013 we wanted to watch the stage on Alpe d’Huez. We made the mistake of not booking accommodation early and ended up having to stay nearly 50km away in Grenoble.
2. Be aware of road closures on the day of the stage
There will be road closures to allow the Tour de France to pass safely through the stage each day. Some roads, such as mountain passes, may be closed for many hours while others will only be closed for a short period as the race actually passes. Plan how you will get to and from the stage in advance and make sure you will not be impacted by road closures associated with the event. This will obviously include the roads for the actual course, but can also include some roads near the course as well.
When we watched the Tour de France in 2022 we experienced not being able to ride our bikes once the roads were closed. After speaking to other people we know, this appears to have been introduced over the last couple of years. Roads reopen 30 minutes after the race passes in most cases.
3. Expect a lot of people and crowds
The Tour de France is the largest annual sporting event in the world and with that comes a lot of people who line the roadside each year. Make sure you allow plenty of time for travel and to access the part of the stage where you plan to watch the race. It is said that up to 1 million spectators have lined the roads of some of the famous mountain passes in years gone by.
Getting to and from the stage can take time and traffic will be heavy, especially if you are near a popular viewing location. Campervans start lining the roads in the mountains for days leading up to the stage. Consider this also when it comes to getting food and drinks for the day as local supermarkets can get low on some supplies.
We witnessed the line of traffic come down from Hautacam after the stage in 2022 and were glad we were not sitting in it. It took people many hours to drive down off the mountain which leads us to our next tip.
4. Cycle to and from the stage
One of the best pieces of advice we were given when we first watched a stage was to park 15km – 20km away and ride your bike to where you want to watch the stage. It generally keeps you well away from road closures and makes it much easier to find parking. We also found it meant getting home at the end of the day was much quicker and we did not have to sit in traffic for very long at all.
Be sure to arrive in plenty of time before the roads are closed to traffic though. We noticed in 2022 that once the road has been closed to traffic bikes are either blocked from traveling further or asked to walk. This appears to be something that has started happening in the past few years. We were unable to make it to the top of Col de Spandelles in 2022 given the roads were already closed.
5. Arrive early to the mountain stages
The mountains are the most popular stages and if you want to get a great position to watch the stage you will need to get there early. The year we watched the riders on Alpe d’Huez we arrived on the mountain at 9:30 am and easily found a good location lower down on the mountain. The riders did not come through until about 4 pm.
A lot of people want to get as close to the top as possible, especially when the stage finishes at the top. Campervans start taking up positions on the roadside 3 to 4 days in advance, especially on the most popular stages.
It’s always great fun on the mountains and the atmosphere of the building crowd always keeps you amused. So don’t worry that you will have to spend many hours before you get to see the race, it’s all part of the joy of watching the race live.
6. Be prepared for cold weather in the mountains
The mountains can be cold so make sure you have warm clothes available. It is not uncommon to have cold snaps or summer storms in the high mountains of the Pyrenees and French Alps. Some of the mountain passes can be over 2,000 m in elevation and can get quite cold very quickly. This does not happen every year but is something to consider and be prepared for.
7. Bring your own food and drink
You will see lots of people arriving at a stage well stocked with baguettes and lots of other food for the day. We recommend heading to a local supermarket and getting everything you need for the day, especially if you are planning to head onto a mountain where you will be spending many hours.
Our recommendation is to get to supermarkets early, especially if you are in small towns or villages in the mountains. We have witnessed bear shelves and refrigerators with everyone stocking up before they head off to watch the stage.
8. Stage starts are the best opportunity to interact with riders
If you would like to try and get an autograph from your favourite rider or wish them luck, a stage start is your best opportunity. Each rider deals with fans in their own way, some will be happy to come and say hi and sign autographs, whereas others will be focused on the day ahead and will be nowhere to be seen. It is pure luck but definitely worth trying and it is a great atmosphere as well.
We have done this on a couple of occasions now and it’s always great fun. It also gives you the opportunity to see the start and then head to another part of the day’s course to watch them again. Again you will need to be aware of the road closures and crowds. We suggest parking your car on the edge of town where you can get away easily.
9. 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 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. I am sure you are all aware of the incident in the 2021 Tour de France which ended some of the riders’ hopes of doing well in the race.
10. Ride a climb the day before the stage
If you are planning on tackling some of the big mountains we suggest doing so the day before the Tour de France arrives for a great atmosphere and experience. As mentioned earlier, campervans start arriving a few days before the stage and as it gets closer the atmosphere increases as well.
We have ridden Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, and Hautacam the day before the race and loved the atmosphere and fans cheering us on as we climbed. You could also consider climbing it early on the day of the race but the road gets busier and busier as more spectators arrive. As noted earlier once roads close to traffic bikes are not permitted to ride.
11. Consider a flat stage
If you are someone who just wants to see the peloton and experience the Tour de France without having the commitment of a full day out, then consider a viewpoint away from the mountains. The busiest parts of the stage are always going to be the high mountains. Away from them, it is much easier to go and have a quick look and not run into crowds and heavy traffic.
12. Get ready for the Tour Caravan
About an hour before the riders arrive, the Tour Caravan rolls past. It is a large convoy made up of all the sponsors of the Tour de France. It is great fun and there are lots of goodies thrown out to the crowds. We have got everything from t-shirts and caps to detergent for clothes. Competition for the items thrown can be fierce but it is all a great bit of fun.
Other considerations about watching the Tour de France in person
1. Dates for the 2023 Tour de France?
The 2023 edition of the Tour de France starts in Bilbao on Saturday 1 July and finishes in Paris on Sunday 23 July. Monday 10 July and Monday 17 July are rest days with no racing taking place.
2. What are the best types of Tour de France stages 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. Head over to our 2023 Tour de France Guide to help you work out which stages you want to watch.
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 the Pyrenees and there are at least one, if not two, time trial stages. Below are some considerations about the different stage types as well as some thoughts about different times within the stage.
The Time Trial /Prologue stages
Watching a time trial or a 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 types 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.
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 race day. 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 perhaps a few minutes.
The 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.
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.
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.
3. The crowd 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.
4. It costs nothing to watch the 2023 Tour de France
Watching the Tour de France in person by the side of the road is totally free. You do not need to book or purchase tickets and it is simply a matter of arriving at the spot you choose and enjoying the day. It is one of the truly unique aspects of the sport of cycling in that the roadside is the stadium. Public access at the start and finish areas is partially restricted for the safety of the riders and teams but you can still find great viewing places open to everyone.