It’s great to follow a stage race on TV and the web but the race belongs to the roadside crowds more than any remote audience. Watching the race from the side of the road is the best vantage point possible because if offers more than a visual spectacle, you can hear and smell the race too.
But it’s easy to make a few mistakes. Just as racers need info and plans on a mountain stage, spectators can gain from preparing too. Here are some tips for a day spent watching a grand tour, especially for a day out in the mountains.
Picking where to watch the race is a tough choice but chances the decision is already made for a race like the Tour de France. You will have made travel plans long ago for a holiday in the mountains or maybe you’re British or Dutch and will head to France to catch a Tour de France stage when it visits the north of France. The mountains have few roads meaning access is hard. If you’re in rural France far from the Pyrenees or Alps then you’ll find it much easier to get close to the race. Obviously the mountain stages are famous and you can have a whole day out.
Timings and road closures
The race website or local newspaper will have the schedule listing when the race will pass. However this is more for information because on a big mountain stage all the roads are blocked from the morning onwards. The roads close well in advance of the race. There’s no fixed time but on a big mountain stage you can expect the route to be closed at breakfast time to cars. It’s why many will drive up the day before and camp overnight, indeed even if you drive up a climb you’ll find many of the parking places are taken days before by camper vans.
One option for driving is to find a side road that joins the route, for example if you want to watch the Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour this year, you can take the road from Sault towards Mont Ventoux and meet the race route halfway up the climb near Chalet Reynard. The later you arrive, the further you’ll have to park and walk.
Bikes are an obvious option. Whilst the roads are closed to cars, there’s a period when the police let people ride and walk up. But in time, perhaps several hours ahead of the race, they will also stop cyclists because the route becomes a corridor for media and other vehicles and in time the publicity caravan. But it’s not ideal and depends on the climb. If you can find a quiet spot then stick the bike against a fence or a tree but if you’re going to the final climb of the day then giant crowds can occupy every space. The busier the place, the more you’ll need a lock. A a minimum take some spare shoes so you don’t wear out your cleats and, better still more in a backpack. But remember bikes and cycle clothing are for riding, not waiting for hours on a mountain.
Dress the part
The mountains may look sunny but there’s a reason riders ride past blocks of snow in July. As an imperfect rule of thumb with every 100 metres of vertical gain you lose 1°C. Regardless it means a 2,000 metre high mountain pass can be cold and of course the wind can be stronger Take some warm clothes even if it’s sunny. Beware the strong sunshine too, if you can find a vantage point in the shade, all the better.
As well as clothing, pack some food and drink. The waiting can be long and ideally visit a local shop and stock on some regional specialities. Indeed one way to think of your trip is really a big picnic for hours where a bike race will happen to ride past. This is the best option if you’re making a family visit to watch the race, come equipped with food, drink and distractions to keep everyone busy for hours.
Indeed you’ll see some people might even camp for days on the mountains. Many daytrippers will come with folding chairs and tables to make the wait more comfortable.
Just because you’re not watching the race on TV doesn’t mean you can’t watch the race on TV. In the big races a lead car will often broadcast the race situation but it can be hard to hear or maybe the in-car commentator doesn’t give out the info when passing you. So a portable TV, a pocket radio or a smartphone can ensure you keep up to date with the race. With phones the signal quality can vary but the networks have invested a lot in the ski areas so coverage is often better than you think although if you’re visiting Italy or France, check your data charges. But this can also be a day to forget everything. Sit on a mountain and escape and let the show come to you.
Where’s the race?
There are many vehicles ahead of the race. A few police vehicles doesn’t mean the race is coming. Instead wait for the helicopters to announce the race is coming. There are several TV cameras following the Tour de France and their presence tells you where the race is.
Another tip would be to avoid the finish of a stage if it’s coming into a big town. If you happen to be in the town, join in but as a destination you’ll find it packed and unless you’re willing to stand by the finish line for hours then it’s hard to see what is happening. Indeed with the VIP stands, TV and more an actual spot near the finish line is hard. If you do go, pick out a place where you have a clear line of sight to the giant TV screens so you can watch the racing whilst you wait.
For all the practical tips, perhaps the biggest thing to remember is the philosophical difference between being part of the crowd and a TV spectator.
“The Tour de France is for everyone but above all it belongs to the innumerable crowds”
Anotine Blondin, L’Equipe, July 1964
You wait all day only to see the race flash past. Pick your spot on a mountain stage and the procession of riders could take half an hour, half a day if you visit a time trial. But often you wait hours only to see the riders go faster than you thought possible, passing you so quick you don’t know where to look. But this the wait is part of the experience, from the gradual rise in tension to picnicking somewhere scenic to meeting fellow cycling fans so ensure you’re ready to enjoy the day rather than just focus on the race.
A word on the crowd. If you’ve come to this website it’s because your interest takes you as far as niche cycling blog. But most people out to watch a stage of the Giro or Tour are there for the show. You might be able to spot a Campagnolo brakehoods from 100 metres but you’ll soon find many people can’t even name the race leader. Of course you’ll also find fellow travellers, the Tour de France in particular brings many fans from around the world.
The Master Plan
Taste is personal and everyone’s travel plans will be different. But if you can find a mountain stage and the sun is shining then aim for the penultimate climb of the day and drive as near to the route as you can get, perhaps using an access road that meets the Tour route on the mountain pass. Don’t rush, there’s no point being in place at dawn but aim to be settled by lunchtime in a scenic spot with some good food and maybe a book to read to pass the time.
Enjoy the publicity caravan, either join in the scrum or take the anthropological stance to watch adults fight like wolves for plastic keyrings scattered from passing vehicles. Cheer on the riders from first to last and wait for the broom wagon to roll past. This done, head to a local café that you’ve located earlier and watch the final of the stage on TV in the company of locals.
One final tip, don’t bother with photos. They might come out but if they don’t it means you looked at the race through a lense rather than your own wide-angle eyes. It’s much better to have memories of the moment in your mind than some blurred photo of half a rider obscured by a limb.
It’s cheap but it’s not always easy to watch a race. The bigger the race, the more you need to pick your spot as the start and finish can see the best places reserved for VIPs and out on the route the roads can be closed early.
- If you’re in town and the Tour is riding by it can be easy to catch
- But if you want to see the full show in the mountains then you need plan before and maybe get up early on the day
- You will have time to spare so come prepared with food or something to read
- Waiting is part of the experience, the building anticipation of one of the world’s greatest sporting events
- Leave the photography to the pros, take some snaps of the surroundings but when the race comes, enjoy the moment
- Get it right and the experience of watching a mountain stage in a big race can provide memories for a lifetime