Visiting the Tour de France has been a bucket list item of mine for a while now, so I was beyond excited when the possibility grew stronger that I might actually be able to go this year.
Having a brother who was a pro cyclist for a number of years, I grew up watching the sport for as long as I can remember. I used to dread having to watch the Tour de France all day long on TV…until I actually started watching it. And then loving it.
I learned about the riders, the teams, and how each person had their own role. I learned what the terms peloton, echelon, domestique and soigneur meant.
I began to long for the soothing banter of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin to wake me from my slumber in the early mornings of July. I also started realizing all of the complexities within the race, how strategic the sport can be, and how beautiful it is once it all comes together so perfectly.
If you are planning to visit the Tour de France (or any of the Grand Tours) this year or in the future, I wanted to offer some tips for you. I found it very difficult when I was planning my trip to find any information about how to get to the stages, the best time to arrive at the stages, information on road closures, etc, so I hope this will make it easier for more people to find their way.
Of course this is a no-brainer for any trip, but especially for the Tour de France. As soon as the list of stages and host towns are released in the Spring, try and determine if any of the towns will be host to multiple stages. This will be your best chance to see as much action as you can during your visit if you don’t plan on trekking to multiple stages throughout the Tour.
This year we stayed in Megeve, a posh ski resort town close to the border of Switzerland. We were very strategic in our planning and the race actually started, ended, or passed through Megeve during three different stages, which happens very rarely in the Tour de France.
This was important because we got to see what a finish and a podium ceremony looked like (it happened to be where the ITT finished this year), a mountain stage, and the start of Stage 20.
So, our schedule went something like this:
- Day 1: The afternoon we arrived in Megeve we watched the riders finish the ITT. Literally, we watched as they crossed the finish line (a great way to see them up close).
- Day 2: The next day we hiked up the finishing climb and watched from the top as the riders came in. This climb and several other HC climbs were close by, in towns that were less than a 15 min drive from where we were staying. So we definitely had options, but decided the finishing climb would be the best.
- Day 3: And on our last day in Megeve, the stage took off in almost the same spot as where the ITT finished, but with a completely different setup (more on that later). It was definitely cool to see what the start of a stage was like. We visited the Official Race Village, saw the lineup of team buses in the morning, watched riders warm up and give live interviews before the race, then watched the grand depart in the afternoon.
So if you plan correctly, you will get a lot of bang for your buck.
If you do not plan on camping (we didn’t), I advise booking your hotel accommodations as soon as you finalize your trip. If you’re in a town that’s hosting more than one stage the hotels will book up fast.
We planned our trip last minute, and although I do not regret it one bit, we ended up paying more than we expected because it was the only room left in Megeve. However, our stay at the Lodge Park was beyond incredible so it was well worth the price in my mind.
We happened to stay at the same hotel as the Lampre team and we ate breakfast in the same room as they did a couple of times. It was interesting to see how the soigneurs unpack and prepare their food, drinks, and shakes each day, and what they eat for breakfast, which included lots of pastas and cereals. (So…I guess I won’t be running into any of them in the Belgian waffle line then?)
If you stay in a hotel in a host town you may get to see the team dynamics up close and personal, too.
Side Note: I almost booked this super posh private chalet in Megeve through Air Bnb, but the communication was very shady, and after a quick Google search (ok, not quick, definitely dug deep with this one), found out the owner was a notorious money launderer in Geneva and was currently serving jail time.
So yeah, if they ask you to book offline through email and to trust them with the transaction, just steer clear. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Once you get into France, I do recommend renting a car to drive to the stage destination if it is not near a big city, and especially if it is a mountain stage. While it is possible to accomplish by train or other public transportation, it is much more of a hassle and will probably end up costing you more, as some of the small mountain villages do not have train stations and you will end up having to take a taxi from the nearest train station to your hotel.
We did not travel with our own bikes, so the remainder of this post will be predicated on driving. But I’m sure you could also take a train and ride your bike to your hotel if this is your thing (it’s not my thing).
There are also many guided Tour de France bike excursion trips so this could be an option, too, if you are an avid rider.
One of the more important things to note is that there WILL be road closures. And it will be an inconvenience if you don’t arrive in time. Also remember, it is France and not too much is organized or documented until shortly before the event.
We found the steephill.tv webpage very helpful (and accurate) regarding the road closures near Megeve, and I’ve also heard from others that this site is pretty on top of logistics.
Many of the road closures are handled locally, so check with your hotel or tourist center for the most accurate info. For example, when we were in Megeve, we consulted this website which listed all road closures for the surrounding areas.
So, once you decide which part of the course you’d like to watch from, make sure you arrive multiple hours before they close the roads, especially if you’re driving.
If you’re watching a mountain stage, this means you must arrive at least 5-6 hours before the riders will arrive or you will not be allowed to drive up. Even if you’re on your bike I would advise arriving 2-3 hours before the leaders are expected because they do close the roads to all traffic once the Caravan comes through (keep reading for more on this).
You can find timetables and expected arrival times on the official Tour de France website here. Just scroll to the stage you’ll be at to see the timetable.
For example, we decided to watch the finishing climb up the Col de Bisanne on Stage 19, and we drove our car up around 12:30pm. Just as we arrived they were putting the barricades up across the road…and the riders were not expected until after 5:30pm.
So yes, arrive early. Better safe than sorry.
On a side note, if you need local directions to get around the main/downtown road closures and to the actual climb, it is best to download the maps from the Tour de France website here. Then, use a detailed local map to further nail down the route. Your hotel or tourist center should have a map of the area.
Following GPS directions is not always recommended in these areas (and does not always work in these areas!), so make sure to have a good idea of where you’re going before you start driving!
Once we narrowly eked our way past the road closures and up on the mountain, we drove to the 5k to go banner. We parked our car on the side of the hill, grabbed our bags, and headed out for an uphill hike.
PACK A LUNCH
You will be waiting a while for the riders to finally come through, so make sure to come prepared! Pack a lunch and some snacks and make sure to bring plenty of water (we carried 1 liter each, but definitely could have used more – I just didn’t want to carry anything else up the mountain!)
On the day we were there, it was cloudy and warm in the morning, then it rained, then it was sunny and hot in the afternoon. You should come prepared with sunscreen, an umbrella (for sun and shade just as much as rain), a rain jacket or poncho, a towel or blanket to sit on, and possibly an extra shirt or pair of socks. We ended up using all of these items within the few hours we were waiting.
Also, if you are female, bring a small roll of toilet paper or some tissues. There are no bathroom facilities on the mountain, so ladies, just be prepared for this!
Again, make sure to come prepared, but also pack light. Don’t forget, you will be lugging all this stuff up (and down) a steep mountain.
BRING YOUR FLAG
This is something no one reminded me about before going, but if you’ve ever watched a stage of the Tour you know that flags are a very important part.
So make sure to bring your flag…the bigger the better! Flags are light, foldable, and super easy to pack.
I literally threw in a couple of handheld flags on a whim and it was one of the best last minute packing decisions I’ve ever made. (That floral kimono thing with the tasseled fringe and that extra pair of platform heels, not so much.) Just in case you forgot this was written from a female perspective, let that serve as your reminder.
I was a little disappointed walking up the mountain because ours were the ONLY American flags we saw the entire day. And we walked up and down that entire mountain more than once, killing time (and burning calories) until the riders arrived. So don’t forget those flags!
*Pro tip: The Tour is always in July, which means tons of Stars & Stripes will be out in full effect for the 4th of July in the US. Make sure to snag a couple flags from your friend’s 4th of July party before you go. You can thank me later.
Your flag will also come in handy for my next couple of tips, so keep on reading!
The Tour de France sponsors did do something right and they don’t leave you hanging in the sun for too many hours without any entertainment.
About an hour before the leaders are expected, the “Caravan” comes through. The Caravan consists of a mixture of official race vehicles, police vehicles, TV cars, team cars, and sponsor vehicles.
The sponsor vehicles are insane and look more like Rose Bowl parade floats than anything else, completely decorated and decked out from top to bottom.
They come through blasting dance music, with gyrating girls (and guys) on top of the trucks, strapped in with harnesses like cirque du soleil performers. They throw out free swag to all of the spectators and this is the important part if you want to collect any loot:
You need to be in an area that is not too crowded, but with enough people that they will still want to give away the good stuff.
It seems our strategy worked pretty well, along with shaking your booty to the dance music and waving your flag.
See how in that video they were throwing everything in my direction? Lol. We ended up collecting tons of free stuff like hats, keychains, water, juice, snacks, laundry detergent, shopping bags, t-shirts, gummy bears, colored pencils, you name it!
If you are in an area where there are tons of people, you’ll be lucky to wrestle away a couple of things. So, even if you want to watch the riders come through with your large group of BFFS, make sure to spread out during the Caravan and you’ll be sure to collect all the good stuff.
The Caravan was one of the most entertaining parts of the day and it gets everyone pumped up for the riders to come through. Granted, I didn’t get the best video footage of this part of the day, but I guarantee you it was way more entertaining than that 10 second clip.
We were lucky enough to actually know a rider in the race (I won’t name drop, but how cool is that?), so we were majorly hooked up with VIP Press passes that included access to the team bus staging areas, the Official Village, and lots of other behind-the-scenes action.
Try and make friends while you’re visiting and who knows, you might be able to score one of these passes too. (I’m sure you can also buy one, but I have no info on that so you’re on your own there).
This is another instance where your flag comes in handy. Make sure that bad boy is visible at all times, tuck it into your backpack, hang it out of your pocket, or just keep it in your hands. People love to start conversations by asking which part of the US you’re from or which riders you are following. It’s a great way to make new friends!
The VIP press experience was amazing because it allowed us to see all the teams warm up outside the buses in the morning, to see live interviews with the riders and managers, and to see the riders up close before the start.
‘NO PHOTOS PLEASE’
Another tip if you’re visiting the Tour is not to worry about taking pictures of the riders coming through during the race. It might seem like the sensible thing to do to document your trip, but trust me, they go by so fast and if you’re focused on getting a good shot through your camera lens you will miss all the action in real life. It’s also very hard to get a quality shot with all of the other spectators in the way and with the non-stop motion of the bike.
For example, I was so busy taking this video of Romain Bardet, who ended up winning the stage, that I basically missed the group of the GC riders that came through about 15 seconds later. (Did you see that American flag cameo though??)
So, unless you are a professional photographer I would recommend skipping the camera and just watching the race. These are the kind of memories that you will have forever!
And seeing Peter Sagan pull his famous uphill wheelie is just something you need to see IRL.
And as a reminder, crazy costumes and wigs are highly encouraged, but I do NOT recommend running alongside any of the GC riders or trying to touch them. Or dumping water on them unless they ask. I’m pretty sure they hate that.
You don’t want to be the idiot that got clocked in the face by Chris Froome.
So, those are my tips for visiting the Tour de France. Have you ever been to the Tour? What was your experience like? If you have any questions leave me a comment below and I will try to answer them the best I can!