How to watch a race

Belgian cycling fans

Going to watch a bike race is not as simple as you might think. Get it wrong and all you’ll catch is a cold, not the action. There are some hints, tips and skills that can substantially improve the experience. Given the classics season is now upon us, it’s time to share some of these.

Watching the traffic go by
First, let’s review the basics. Go stand in the street near your home or work and watch the traffic pass. Excited? No. A bunch of riders doing 50km/h will go by just as quickly and you won’t see much either. There is often little chance to recognise who is who, yet alone anything more substantial Often the passing breakaway will be obscured by a camera motorbike or a team car. You could wait for hours only to see the race flash by.

A snapshot, not a panorama
It’s important to remember that standing by the road means you will not see the race unfold in front of you, the chances of seeing the defining attack of the race happen in front of you are tiny. Even going to the top of the Kapelmuur for the Tour of Flanders needn’t reveal too much, you might see the riders flash by one by one but will they regroup, will they attack? Don’t go and see the race expecting the whole story to be told in front of your eyes. Instead go for the atmosphere and the occasion.

To simplify things I’d suggest you have two options as a spectator. The first is to pick a spot for the day and relax, the second is to follow the race as much as possible.

Option 1: stay in the same place
This isn’t as easy you might think. The trick is to pick a scenic spot where you are happy to spend hours, a vantage point that lets you see the race for 30 seconds is also a place where you might wait for hours. The finishing straight is often a bit boring, the race flashes past, it’s in town and crowded. I’d recommend getting near a giant video screen that can sometimes be found at strategic points including the final. Or find a good place to see the race go past and then retire to a local bar showing the race on TV where you can join in the local atmosphere as the race heads to the finish. Since you’ve opted for the slow approach, think about finding some local food and drink to soak up the scene even more in a picnic. Frites will be everywhere and have the added benefit of warming up the fingers, whilst beer is almost inevitable.

Remember places like Belgium are cold in March and April and standing outside waiting for a race is a good way to get cold to the bone. So come equipped with warm clothes and pick your spot to ensure you’re sheltered from the wind. And get ready to wait. You can pass the time with a portable radio or even TV, even if you don’t master the local language you’ll get a flavour of what is happening.

Option 2: the rally drive
You can see the race several times in one day. Get to the start to see the signing on. As the riders mill around team buses and the signing on you can grab photos and signatures, plus inspect team bikes if you want to check the tech choices for the day. Then it’s possible to drive to a spot and see the race go past and then jump in your car and get ahead of the race again. And repeat.

You’ll need a good GPS or better, a co-pilot who can pick a route that stays close to the race but doesn’t get blocked by closed roads. You will find quite a few people do this, spending the day jumping in an out of their cars in a mad dash across Flanders or Northern France and you might want follow them, or at least talk to them since local knowledge helps a lot. In between you can listen to the race via radio. You’ll finish the day as tired as the riders but it adds an element of adrenalin and ensures the race viewing lasts a long time.

I say “rally drive” but don’t get vision of speeding across fields and sliding around corners. French speed cameras trip if you’re 1km/h over the set limit and Matthew Conn advises me that the police in Belgium will stake out the small roads with mobile radars to ticket wannabe Séb Loebs. Some might boast of seeing the race 12 times in the day but this frenetic activity inclines me towards Option 1, or maybe watching the signing on and catching the race a couple of times before heading for a cobbled hill near the finish.

Belgian café
What more could you want?

Some extra suggestions:

  • Leave the bike at home. You want to watch the race, not keep an eye on your bike. Your cleated shoes are impractical. Besides to everyone else out for the day you probably don’t look very good in comparison to the pros.
  • If you want to ride, do some of the course the day before the race as you’re likely to meet the riders on reconnaissance rides.
  • Visit local hotels on the eve of the race, you’ll see where the riders are thanks to the team bus parked outside. You might meet riders in the lobby but if they’re resting, you can often check out the team bikes and if you ask, grab a souvenir team cap or a water bottle.
  • Once the TV coverage is up you’ll find the helicopters hover above the race. A good way to tell the race is finally coming is when the helicopters get near.
  • Don’t bother trying to photograph the race. Take some images of the crowds and the local scene but when the race comes you probably aren’t going to get great pictures so let your eyes and mind record the scene for ever.
  • Painting the road will get you in trouble. It’s tolerated on Alpine passes where few drive but in town it’s graffiti. If you want, use chalk or safer, take an old bedsheet and paint a slogan on it.
  • Similarly a reader advises not to take a souvenir cobble, the price can be high. Only the winner in Roubaix deserves one.
  • Another reader suggestion is that it’s not an ideal day out for pets or kids.
  • Dress properly. You could be standing in a water-logged field and it might be cold. Bring warm clothes and waterproofs.
  • Come equipped. Given the waiting involved you’ll see many bring folding chairs.
  • Food. Take some food and you’ll find many locals enjoy a beer or six. There have been public order problems with drunken fans, you want a spot where a neighbour will share a beer but not one where they’ll start trouble.
  • After the race many riders will head for the local airport, if you’re flying back then you might be on the same flight.

I’ll follow this up in May with a piece about watching stage races like the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France as the logistics are different, as is the racing and much, much more.

Have you got any more ideas and tips for watching the spring classics? Let me know via the comments

19 thoughts on “How to watch a race”

  1. IR,

    Things come and go, but the poise, approachablility, insane depth, and quality of writing despite the sheer volume of material you exibit here is very commendable. While most are trying to get famous with one liners you are building an empire of quality JOURNALISM. Thank you.


  2. Tim W: cut and keep if you like. I hope it helps, I’ve been a few times to races and sometimes felt underwhelmed but once you treat it as something very different than watching it on TV then it’s ok. It’s not like a sports stadium where all the action happens in front of you.

    SuperFred: even the police have trouble with that.

    benDE: the cheque is in the post! People keep asking “how do you write so much” but really it’s 5-10 minutes to type, find a picture and press publish and thanks to modern tech it’s easy to do this anywhere. In fact wish I could write more, I have a stack of ideas to cover that gets taller by the day to the point of having to write list.

  3. you missed out the best one – sit inside a Belgie cafe watching the race on TV, eating frites and drinking beer with the locals, then do as they do and dive outside at the last possible moment to see it pass, then dive back in to see the rest on tv (and drink more beer, and sing a song).

  4. “You’ll need a good GPS or better, a co-pilot who can pick a route that stays close to the race but doesn’t get blocked by closed roads.”

    Regarding the above, and in general option 2, I can heartily recommend doing this. Not tried it at big races but for smaller races it’s entirely feasible and a lot of fun. It’s handy to have the detailed route guide to use alongside the GPS so you can anticipate what roads will be affected and what time. Plan parking spots in advance so you know exactly where you are going.

    You make a fair point about not being able to always see everyone, on flats it can be just a whoosh but you can choose corners or steeper parts (if you’re on a hill not necessary mountains here) for a better chance at actually seeing faces. Feeding stations also can be good for spotting people as well as giving an opportunity to catch a discarded bidon as a souvenir.

    If anyone is in the position of choosing between seeing a start or a finish, I’d always choose the start. Unless you get to the finish early to grab a decent barrier spot or are 7ft tall, a sprint finish can be a disappointingly brief affair. You soak up the atmosphere of the end of the race but never actually see very much. The start offers a better shot at seeing your favourites. Additionally at the end of a race, riders and teams are keen to get on the bus and get going. If there has been bad weather, riders really aren’t quite so amenable at being stopped understandably, they just want a hot shower.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on Grand Tour spectating as it’s a different beast indeed.

  5. I’d second all the points here. One thing that impresses is how everyone seems to turn out, it’s not a few sports fans, it’s whole families that come to watch.

  6. All great tips, but what else would you expect from a great site?

    The Thursday and Friday before the Tour of Flanders can be great opportunities to see the teams out training on the course. They usually stick to the last 100km or so, where race will be decided on the Sunday.

    On these days, you can drive (or ride) the course, stop on the climbs, take that photo that wont ever do justice to just how steep the hill is and also get an idea of which parts of the course can be used to see the race twice without having to move the car much.

    Stay off the course on your bike on the Saturday as this is when the cycle tourist event is run and the roads become a bit of a mess. Tens of thousands of cyclists do the ecvent every year and there always seems to be some form of accident or fatality with lights or stop signs being ignored because the roads arent closed. It is not really a good day to walk up the Muur in Geraadsbergen so maybe go and check out the churches in Gent!

    The race website and the local newspapers have very detailed maps that can help with planning, as well as esitmated timings that you can use to see what time the race will arrive at certain points along the route (based upon 3 or four different avergae speeds). There was even a free can of beer with one of the newspapers last year, featuring the course profile and all of the hills wrapping around the can. Only in Belgium!

    The feed zones have become more and more hectic at the Tour of Flanders and last year, as well as being bitterly cold, the first feed was absolutely packed with people and all of the exit roads were very congested. Picking a parking spot to get away from the scene of the crime quickly is really important.

    If you are going to try this, do not wait for the race convoy to pass before you head for the car. If you do, you’ll get stuck for sure.

    For Flanders, I’d recommend the start. Even without press credentials, there is plenty to see in and around the team busses. Then, pick one stretch of stones before the succession of climbs begin, then one of the final few climbs with a café close by to watch the race approach and then catch the finish once they have passed.

    The only low light will be having to breathe in everyone else’s cigarette smoke while you are crammed into the café.

    A great alternative to the Tour of Flanders is the 3 Days of Depanne-Koksijde. It includes several of the climbs from the Tour of Flanders (normally the day they finish in Zottegem, although I havent checked this year’s course) but a lot less people out the road, making a few viewings that little bit easier. If you are “in country” for a while, this might make a good preparation event to test your planning and navigational skills for the big one.

    I’ll shut up now. I just get really enthusiastic about this race and this region of the world.

    Have fun if you are going. It is a great race in a great country.


  7. Did the ‘rally’ version of spectating at paris – roubaix c. 2003 (the muddy year) went to the start in the rain and then basically followed the team cars blasting up the autoroute to the first section of pave, they know where they are going! After that we lucked out and saw the graham baxter sporting tours bus, so we followed that! saw about 4 sections until we had to head back to eurotunnel, great fun and all in the days without gps just a michelin map with the route highlighted earlier!



  8. How to watch a race? that’s easy…

    1)make coffee
    2)sit on couch
    3)find stream on the laptop
    4)log in to the pave’ chat
    5)pontificate over worldly matters such as Devolder’s yellow gloves

  9. Great article and advice. Later in the year I’ll be at the Worlds in Copenhagen; my 10th visit since going to Valkenburg in 1998. For spectators at the Worlds the great thing is that you can settle into your deck chairs for the day AND see the race pass many times. I’d recommend it to any cycling fan. Same things apply about warm clothes & local beer; the more the better! Who knows, this year could see Cavendish cross the line first…
    Keep up the blog!

  10. Al: I think I touched on that, although not the “all day” aspect!

    natalie: interesting, as you say the start is more interesting that the finish, you will often see a lot more. Especially in a smaller race where there’s no VIP zone.

    Jono: true, especially in Belgium.

    Matt C: superb advice, thanks.

    gary marshall: sounds like a good time.

    Jason Evans: that’s the soft option. But TV coverage is very good, I love the suspense of a good race.

    Adam Mitchell: thanks. As you say the worlds passes many times because of the circuit. I’ve been before and it’s almost boring. I say almost as it’s good to see and you can definitely tell how they speed up towards the end.

  11. Excellent article.

    If you’re planning to watch the race from the road, then pick a location with a bathroom. The more popular areas have out-door urinals/toilets. Having never seem these missile shaped objects before I was a bit tentative, but I quickly realized they were vital as I attempted to keep pace with my Belgium neighbors.

  12. As well as not suitable for pets and kids I’d also think twice about dragging a non fan along unless it’s a circuit where they can see the race a few times without too much charging about. The long wait for 20 seconds of lycra and carbon fibre flashing past tends to generate a ‘was that it?’ response.

  13. Good advice. I’ve had many happy days watching various cobbled classics. You always remember your first and mine was a Paris-Roubaix. We turned up at dusk on one of the less popular sections of pavé, listening to bad accordion music on a local radio station and eating chips & mayonnaise in the car.

    In our field was parked van inhabited by a cheery gang of Tom Boonen fans, who happened to work for Innergetic, the mattress company, and Quickstep co-sponsor at the time. Their plan was to lay out mattresses in the field the next day to spell out something for the aerial cameras, I can’t remember what though.

    As we were putting up the tent, they came over to say hello and immediately spotted our case of (French) Kronenberg in the boot, that we were tucking into. They were outraged and insisted we cast aside the ‘cat’s piss’ and help ourselves to their crates of (Belgian) Jupiler. Thus began a brief friendship that included static bicycle racing on top of their van, and a very good barbecue the next day. We almost missed the race whizz past.

    Here’s a short record of another trip, to Wallers-Arenberg, caught on video:

    For Paris-Roubaix, the Channel Tunnel means you can leave London on Saturday morning, have lunch in somewhere nice like Arras, take in a first world war memorial, find a good camp spot well before darkness falls, enjoy the atmosphere the next morning, catch the race in at least two places and be home on Sunday night at a humane hour. All without having to rush. With four people sharing a car it’s a cheap and thrilling weekend. In my view much better than my experiences attempting to watch the Tour de France.

  14. I prefer my racing on television, but when we lived in California my wife and I on impulse took our kids to Acton, 20 minutes away, to catch a brief stretch of the Tour of California in Lance’s first year back. We weren’t looking for the best spot and the plan was to spend an hour or two and head back home. We parked at an intersection that was not yet closed and with perhaps 40 or 50 others found spots to watch the race go by.

    I made the fortuitous choice to take the inside of the corner, and we staked out some space. The girls, 1 and 3 at the time, were buckled into the stroller where there would be no chance they could get involved with the course. Lance’s army of promotional supplies came by with free chalk, cowbells, and posters, which made great souvenirs and gave the girls something to play with.

    When the convoy cars started to come through we got ready. The announcer car parked at the intersection and said a few things about how spectacular the sight was that we were about to see, and helpfully explained that no significant breakaway had formed. Then came the peloton, off in the distance at first, scrambling to keep an unimportant move from forming into a break.

    When it took the corner, I could look directly into the eyes of the riders on the inside, zipping by at 50 kph. An extension of my arm could have demolished the field and landed me in cycling infamy forever (also in prison). I could see the focus and intensity on their faces. It was breathtaking.

    And then they were gone. And we loaded up the car and went home with a few souvenirs, no photographs (that’s good advice, no point in taking bad pictures when you only see the riders for 30-40 seconds anyway) and memories I am glad I made. Still, if it had been longer than a 20-minute drive, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

    -the day before giro del veneto in 2005 I was climbing a hill with the saeco team with di luca talking with him, they leave me for an extra climb and thanks to my unskill in the descent they passed me, having a flatting tyre I was advised by the late Galletti.
    -travelling from spain to italy in camper with friends we were stopped by police for closing street, I suddenly thought anout le Tour and jumped off running to the street when I could see the peloton doing close turn so I could see very well the robotic face of L.A.
    – the best way to see a race I experienced that year in spain in costa blanca waching le Tour with a group of dutch tourists drinking beer to hell and eating fatty sausages at 15 o’clock with 40°C, that day basso won his unique stage in the tour but I was only sad for boogerd’s loosing minutes.

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