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.
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