Never has watching a sport for so little time taken so long – such is a day, and it takes a whole day, watching a stage of Le Tour. Nevertheless, it’s great fun and a real insight into French culture.
Watching a stage of Le Tour requires planning, it’s not like most sports where you just rock up and sit where you are told, equally unlike most sports it doesn’t cost a fortune to watch, in fact, it’s free.
To get the most out of a visit to the tour I think you need to go along with the expectation of observing and participating in what is perhaps the most iconic French mass participation event, if you go along expecting to see a lot of cycling you will be surely disappointed – in fact I am fairly certain that most of the French tour watches have absolutely no interest in cycling whatsoever but rather have huge pride in participating in something that is unquestionably patriotic and that is a show that is better than anyone elses show……and, of course, its a good opportunity to have a “pique nique”.
So, first of all, you need to get there early, on a flat stage the road of the route and therefore most roads crossing the route are closed to motor traffic something like 4 hours before the race is due to pass, in reality, this means that most roads are closed from at least mid-morning if not earlier.
On a popular mountain stage unless you are going to walk or cycle up the stage you need to all intent and purposes need to arrive the day before the stage takes place and bag your position amongst the hundreds if not thousands of French motorhomes.
Now if your aim in visiting Le Tour is to photograph the riders you need to choose your spot along the route quite carefully. To get a decent view of the riders I found it best to choose a spot that is on the outside of a bend and preferably a bend that enables you to obtain a head-on view of the riders as they approach, you also need to try and find a spot where you view is not going to be obscured by other tour spectators which in a village can be quite challenging.
One surprising thing I noticed is that whereas in the U.K. an event like LeTour would attract a mass of photographers all with the latest DSLRs and big white lenses this is just not the case in France where photography just doesn’t appear to be as popular.
Having found your spot it’s then just a question of waiting for Le Tour to unfold in front of you, with plenty of opportunities to practice your photographic skills before the riders arrive.
In addition to being the worlds premier cycle race Le Tour is, of course, a commercial marketing opportunity both for the regions of France through which the tour passes but also for a whole variety of companies, many food-related, that are partners (sponsors) of Le Tour. The most obvious manifestation of this commercialism is the various pop-up stores along the route and of course the “caravane” that proceeds the riders.
About 2.5 hours before the riders the first elements of the face start to appear, first of all, the vehicles from Le Tours major sponsors such as Vittel, as these vehicles pass the idea is that you cheer loudly in the hope that they will throw you a bottle of water or some other tat !
After the first few sponsor vehicles and before the main caravane a few team cars and other official cars pass, presumably just checking that everything is safe and as it should be and perhaps a bit of last-minute route reccying.
And then things really start kicking off as Le Tour Caravane appears. The Caravane almost defies description and is clearly for many spectators the highlight of the day – dozens of sponsors vehicles zoom through many of which pass-by throwing assorted tat for the spectators who in turn go absolutely bonkers trying to catch whatever is being thrown in their general direction – biscuits, cakes, pens, fridge magnets, water, salami etc – all in all, an absolutely bizarre spectacle.
And then a little break for some retail therapy as the official Le Tour Boutique arrives.
Then its the turn of the press, some TV cars and some more official cars.
And then the neutral service car – which must mean the riders are actually getting close.
And finally accompanied by the roar of helicopters – after a lot of waiting it’s finally time for some riders, in this case, a small breakaway of just three riders.
The team cars for the breakaway riders.
Try and grab some close-ups as the Peloton flies past.
A quick switch of direction to grab more shots as the riders rapidly disappear.
And then the myriad of TV motorbikes, team cars, official cars etc, all of this whilst several helicopters fly overhead.
And that’s it- all done – all over in the blink of an eye – time to go home and find out what actually happened in the stage !