Tour Tourism: tips for watching a race

The 101st Tour de France begins on 5 July 2014. With the Grand Départ in Yorkshire, Great Britain, it promises to be an outstanding opening to the world’s biggest bike race. Of course, all the bits between Yorkshire and Paris are also bound to be equally compelling. It is, after all, a festival of cycling – and that’s one reason why more and more Australians are attending the Tour every year but, because of the costs involved and distance that needs to be covered, it’s quite a commitment.

We will once again be publishing the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition) which will be on sale in June. The new issue of RIDE (#64) will finish printing over the weekend and distribution will commence early next week.

As the Tour approaches we are putting the finishing touches to the Tour Guide and preparing for another Grand Départ. RIDE will be presenting the Tour review of 2014 in a different manner; stay tuned for more details of what promises to be a great race… and an interesting opportunity to make RIDE a more interactive experience. In the meantime, there is a journey to prepare. It’s time to book some flights… and thus it’s an opportunity to remind readers of a new partnership with Air France.

Air France has teamed up with RIDE – to make one element of the adventure easier to manage: the flight. Getting to Europe just got 10 per cent cheaper!* Call 02 8222 5051 for more.

From Australia, Air France offers over 65 weekly flights to Paris and beyond to its worldwide network in conjunction with its codeshare partners Etihad Airways, China Southern, Garuda Indonesia and Air Mauritius but also over 370 weekly flights with its interline partner carriers including Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, all connecting at its key Asian gateways for onward travel on Air France. For more information: airfrance.com.au

 

Getting to the Tour de France just got 10% cheaper!

*Note: Air France offer valid until 30 June 2014.

 

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A few years ago, Matthew Boevink found that he could no longer resist the urge: he packed and set off for a journey of discovery… he also took notes that he turned into a series of tips for those who may later make the trip.

This is a flashback from the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition) of 2013: ‘Travel tips – chasing the race’…

 

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• Being a Tour spectator

 

– By Matthew Boevink

 

Going to the other side of the world is a big commitment but to do so simply to see a bike race is something more and more Australians are doing. The Tour lures travellers from far and wide and one such visitor shares his experience… and offers his advice for others.

 

I became interested in cycling watching the broadcast of a highlights package in a weekend summary of the 1985 Tour de France when Greg LeMond gave up his chance to win by stopping to wait for his team leader Bernard Hinault. I could not believe that such a thing would happen in sport. Not wanting to win for yourself?  Of course I did not understand the sport, and so began an interest, and then obsession with this amazing race.

As one of six children it was only during SBS’s 6.00pm coverage of the Tour in the early 1990s that I was allowed to eat dinner in front of the television, away from the rest of the family. Over time the gathering around the television grew such that the Tour de France became – and continues to be – a shared family interest. Many were the years when I would try to time turning off the morning radio news before the sport segment declared the day’s stage winner. It is fun to keep the anticipation, but it was a challenge when the telecast didn’t start until 20 hours after stages finished. Oh, how things have improved since those days…

I’d promised myself that I’d make the trip one time and, finally, 2011 became The Year.  My brother was living in France, my friend Christian was to join us for a few days and then lend us his car for two weeks and my employer was telling me – yes, insisting! – to reduce my leave balance.

And so, on Bastille Day 2011, after 25 years of watching the Tour de France on TV, it had come down to a mad dash.  Could we make it? It seemed to be true – yes, we could!

After the nine-hour flight Brisbane to Singapore, three hour stopover, 12 hours flying from Singapore to Paris, an hour in the airport… it was all about to begin but questions were still being asked. Ah, do Australians need a visa? (No, not any more.) I greeted Adam and Christian in Paris and then had a seven-hour, 900km dash along the toll motorway down to the Pyrenees. And then, after an hour of cycling, I was finally at the Tour de France!

As the helicopter rotors could be heard, five kilometres from the finish on Luz Ardiden, the excitement that had started to bubble up in Paris early that morning and built during the long drive seemed justified. We had successfully travelled almost the full length of the country by 3.00pm. But more importantly the realisation hit that after saying “One day I’ll go…” for so many years, finally I was actually here! By the time we got to our campsite and ate it was around 10.30pm – wow, what a day(s) it had been!

For those doing the maths I had been travelling for 33 hours to get to the stage and over 40 hours before getting some sleep. The challenge of chasing the Tour de France was evident when, with just a few hours sleep, I was on the bike the next day. Nursing a horrible dose of jet lag, I made the climb from our campsite in the foothills of the Pyrenees to the peak of Col du Soulor at 1,474m. It was an effort but I’m not the first Australian to have done this. And, it would seem, there are many more who are keen to do likewise.

Over the next two weeks we learned a great deal about “how to chase the Tour de France”. One of those things is that the Tour is all-consuming. You will travel, eat, read, ride and breathe the Tour while you chase it. The second thing you’ll discover is that the first-hand experience is even better than you expected it might be. For those heading, or thinking of heading over (book your flight now), here are a few tips for making your chase easier.

As evidenced already, chasing the Tour de France is harder than you may think. It actually requires a lot of energy and patience. It also helps to do some planning. Here are a few logistical tips on how to chase the Tour.

 

1. Motorised transport is a must  

• You cannot consistently get to where you need to go in the time required using trains, buses and/or a bike.

• Self-driving is easier than you may imagine. A campervan is not essential but your car must have the capacity to load bicycles within/on/behind it.

• Use a Michelin map to take departmental roads through the French villages and towns. It’s worthwhile. Each has their unique character rather than the motorways which are pretty much the same the world over. (In France they are not “free” ways as they are toll roads.) Be prepared.

• You will do a lot of driving (using the example of 2011, we did 2,800km over just 10 days).

• Booking with an organised travel company takes care of many of the logistical issues.

• After each stage you will be stuck in very slowly moving traffic jams, so make sure you look out the window (you are in the Alps after all).

 

2. Advice on organising accommodation  

• Hotels should ideally be organised before you get to France (a real benefit of going with a tour group).

• For a cheaper option consider camping. French campsites are excellent, rarely do you need to pre-book and, if they are full (like Alpe d’Huez sites will be), you can camp almost anywhere for a night. You will need to bring or buy your own gear. The Quecha 2 Second tent is almost a French institution, taking, as the name suggests, two seconds to unfold.

• The cost of camping is about five euros (±$6.50) per night per person where you will get a hot shower, clean toilets and some amazing views.

 

3. A bicycle should be mandatory

• Consider just how many cars are required to transport 200,000 people crowding onto a remote mountain with no public transport available to move them. There may be some small car parking areas at non-finish summits, but typically the line of parked cars and campervans can easily be 20km in length. At the end of a stage each car must make its way down what is often a single lane road and stop to give way for team buses, team cars and other accredited vehicles (which are often escorted away by police in pre-planned evacuations).

• A bike allows you to park your car some distance from where you can see the action – but, when doing so, point it in the direction you wish to drive at day’s end. If you ride to your preferred viewing location, you can avoid most of the traffic jam that always occurs. The alternative is to walk– but this is why bicycles were invented…

• It is possible hire (or buy) bikes if you do not take yours but this should be arranged prior to travel.

• Bike locks are only really required in major cities (make them big, especially in Paris) but not on the open road: we found general honesty and courtesy tends to rule.

 

4. How to make the most of your cycling

• As a rule of thumb, you are not fit enough to ride the entire route! Many of the climbs are big and the distances incredible… even in a car. Instead enjoy the experience.

• Ride the climbs, not the flats. Riding a 15km climb of switchbacks with stunning views, including snow-capped mountain peaks, is not generally available in Australia.  Do as many as you can. (This is another major benefit of a tour group as they do drop-off/pick-ups.)

• Altitude is a bitch. Watch out for the first few days on the high mountains – it can surprise the unsuspecting. Drink lots of water and expect to have a higher heart rate.

• Ride the route on the day of the race. Where else will you get cheered all the way to the top of a climb? Be aware, however, of a few obvious points: road closures are part of life on Planet Tour and just because you’re on a bike, it doesn’t mean you can go anywhere, anytime. Should you be stopped by a gendarme or security, chances are you’re trying to go somewhere with restricted access. Do not argue. Do not scream. Do not behave as though you should go somewhere with limited capacity (ie. the reason for the closure). Smile and politely do as you’re told.

• Generally the roads are closed to traffic well in advance of the peloton’s arrival. (The publicity caravan usually passes by around 100 minutes ahead of the race.) In the mountains, you can ride most of the way to the finish – even when it’s at altitude – but the final few hundred metres of the stage are usually cordoned off so that the site of the finish can be prepared safely. Cyclists are usually able to get close to the finish… but the earlier you get there, the better your vantage points will be.

 

5. Advice on replenishments

• Be prepared. A breakfast of croissants and condiments can be found in each village but ensure that you are totally self-sufficient for your lunch needs.

• Uttering – even without any confidence in pronunciation – “un café” will score you a coffee at restaurants and brasseries. It will be an espresso… and, remember, this is the Tour de France so it’s longer than an Italian equivalent and rarely as good as you’d get at the Giro.

• Eat the set menu offerings of entree, main and dessert at restaurants as your evening meal, each is based on the local cuisine. After a long day standing on a hot stretch of road shouting at bike riders, you’ll be hungry.

• Buy local produce when possible at the town markets and make sure your cheese is aired before eating it.

 

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6. Advice on what to wear

• When getting dressed, be prepared for every possible weather condition… especially in the Pyrenees. You can get sunburned in the morning at 2,500m and by the afternoon it might be snowing.

• Bring an orange shirt so that, on Alpe d’Huez, you can join the crowd on the seventh hairpin: “Dutch Corner” – this has the potential to be the most amazing street party you will ever experience.

• Do not wear an AFL jersey! The aim is to interact with other nationalities, not have them avoid you. If you must, consider a cycling cap and an Australian football jersey both of which will get people talking to you.

• Do not wear a Livestrong T-shirt.

 

7. What to do on race day

• You have less time than you think. Get to your climb at least a few hours before the Tour caravan is due to arrive. You can find out the anticipated arrival time printed daily in L’Equipe or regional papers. Even if you can’t read French you can understand the results and times… and/or you can admit that you are buying something “just for the pictures”.

• Take a bike up the mountains even if you have to push it.  Similarly if you have to walk up a climb due to police stopping you riding, bring your bike with you. This enables you the option of riding down the mountain at the end of the stage… but please be careful! Just because it’s possible to ride fast doesn’t mean you should.

• Try to find a campervan with a television to watch the race itself until the riders arrive and you might also be able to see the finish itself once they’ve gone past.

 

8. Where to stand… a spectator’s dilemma

• For a sprint finish, this is easy. You want to be as close to the end of the stage as possible. Prepare to be in position four hours or more prior to the riders’ arrival. The alternative is to be at about 500m to go so you can also watch the race on one of the big screens (there are generally four or five at each finish) as the race is televised, but still get a sense of how insanely fast the riders are going.

• If you are less than two metres tall, consider getting a small plastic step to stand up on.

• Where you stand for the mountain stages is a much more difficult decision. Do you go behind the barriers so you can see the finishing bursts that decide the day’s placings? Or do you get amongst it within the cordon of noise and excitement that is the crowd? Decide, depending on your mood, on the day… but there are reasons why some areas are so packed with spectators.

• Join in the festivities, but don’t make a goose of yourself by running beside the riders – the gendarmerie are less tolerant than they used to be.

• Behind the barriers you can see the actual finish whereas amongst the crowd you are so close to the riders that you can see the perspiration beading down their faces.

 

9. How to paint the road

• Painting the road is essential if you wish to have a full Tour de France experience. I recommend acquiring an excessive amount of paint. Either use spray cans or for faster application, a roller and tray. Chalk is best avoided; it might be easier to carry up a mountain but the dust is rotten and the vibe is lost too quickly.

• You will have lots of time to apply it before the riders arrive and being able to “tag” the road in front of police is the best way to fill it. The experienced fans know that paint application is best done late at night when traffic is minimal. They also know to wear lots of bright lights so that they can: 1. See what they’re painting; 2. Be seen while they’re painting.

• It’s good to paint at five, four, three, two and one kilometres to go signs or KOM banners. The barriers stop the crowd from hiding what you’ve done.

• Be creative. Our ‘signature’ stencil was of kangaroos hopping down the road.

• Remember, more paint is better!

 

10. How to carry a flag (properly)

• Flags are meant to be waved or flown. The idea of taking a flag to a sporting event is for it to be seen. They are not an article of clothing.

• Dutch, Danish and Luxembourg flags are often flown from long poles, some three metres or more in length, so wearing a flag cape is pointless and against Australian flag protocols. Either wave the flag in front of you or I suggest using some tent poles which can fit into your day pack, so you can display (y)our flag proudly.

 

11. What to read while you’re travelling

RIDE Cycling Review – the best magazine in the world. You will read and re-read the articles, race coverage, team bike reviews, past results, average race speeds and interviews each morning over croissants, on the drive and again each evening.

The Official Tour de France Guide. Use the stage profiles to plan where you will await the riders, trying to pick the locations where the key moves that will determine the day’s outcome will be made. Review the team pages so that you have a witty comment for the German fan beside you when the peloton rushes past. Look back over this article and giggle, and nod along as you agree with all the amazingly useful sentiment it contains.

 

– By Matthew Boevink

 

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Since 2003, RIDE Media has published the Australian edition of the Official Tour de France Guide. You can pre-order your 2014 copy now… just click the image above.

 

Author: rob@ride

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