7 Best Places to Catch the Tour de France
The spectator-worthy spectacle is best witnessed from these destinations.
It is a rolling, three-week spectacle. The 97th edition of the Tour de France features 21 races (a prologue and 20 stages) in 23 days, covering 3,600 kilometres (2,237 miles) through cities both modern and medieval, through jagged mountain passes, lush valleys, and almost every landscape imaginable in between. By its nature, the Tour is a difficult race to follow, even for the support vehicles, the motorcycle escorts and the caravan of sponsors.
During flat stages, the peloton of 21 teams can flash by in an instant (except, perhaps, during the 13-plus kilometres of bone-rattling cobblestones on Stage 3). Mountain stages make for great drama, but roadside parking is at a premium; you’ll need to claim your spot well in advance of the race day. Still, it is an event that, once witnessed, will stay with you forever. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll see the critical move that makes the difference in this legendary race.
Here are seven of the best places to catch the world’s best cyclists.
1. Rotterdam, Netherlands, July 3
Prologue. Few stages can match the pomp and circumstance of the Tour’s opening event. This year, the start of the Tour takes place to the north in the Netherlands, in Rotterdam, and features a lightning quick 8.9-kilometre time trial that will seed the riders for Stage 1.
2. French Alps, July 11, finishing at Avoriaz, the ski resort in Morzine
Stage 8. After a series of fast, flat early stages, and a few ripples on Stage 7 (with a arduous summit finish at Les Rousses), the Tour turns serious along this 189-kilometre route from Bois-d’Amont to Morzine-Avoriaz, and the high peaks of the Alps. Spectators eager to see the first volleys of the mountain skirmishes that often decide the Tour will want roadside perches on the sharp inclines to the peak of Col de la Ramaz (1,615 metres) and the mountaintop finish line at Avoriaz, the high-altitude ski resort (1,800 metres) in Morzine.
3. French Alps, July 13, finishing in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne
Stage 9. The daunting prospects of this monster Alps stage from Haute-Savoie to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne may cause the racers to lose sleep during the Tour’s first rest day on July 12. This brutal 204-kilometre route passes over four mountains (all 1,500 metres or taller), saving the toughest—the imposing 2,000-metre Col de la Madeleine—for last before a 30-kilometre run to the finish. The battles along the way could be as epic as they are decisive.
4. Pyrenees, France, July 22, finishing atop the Col du Tourmalet
Stage 17. The massive Col du Tourmalet, the 2,115-metre giant of the Pyrenees in the southwest corner of France, looms as the highest point of the 2010 Tour and the finish of this rugged 174-kilometre stage from Pau. To make matters worse, racers must tackle the Tourmalet after pedalling over the Col de Marie-Blanque (1,035 metres) and Col du Soulor (1,474 metres). Expect the peloton to absolutely splinter on the Tourmalet’s steep flank, in a stage that could render the time trial two days later a mere formality.
5. Bourdeaux, France, July 24, finishing in Pauillac
Stage 19. From Eddy Merckx to Greg Lemond to Miguel Indurain to Lance Armstrong, the lineage of Tour champions runs through the time trial, and for good reason. Long known as the race of truth, the time trial—literally a race against the clock—separates contenders from pretenders. And this is it. This undulating 52-kilometre individual time trial through the bountiful wine region of Bordeaux, on the Tour’s penultimate stage—and the only major time trial in this year’s race—is the pièce de résistance.
6. Paris, July 25
Stage 20. One last glorious chance for the sprinters on the final day. For pure energy and excitement, this 102.5-kilometre coronation parade from Longjumeau to the City of Light, highlighted by the last glittering circuit around Champs-Élysées in Paris, is a must-see event. Often ceremonial in terms of the overall winner (the race leader typically will enjoy a sip of Champagne with his teammates before reaching the outskirts of Paris, and usually finishes safely tucked away in the pack), the final stage of the tour is nonetheless rife with suspense. Unlike other stages, the final day is like a giant criterium, with the racers circling this magnificent concourse at least a half-dozen times before a mad dash for the finish line. For the stage winner, the promise of enduring fame awaits.
7. A Pub Nearest You, July 3–25
Television coverage of this grand event, with advances in video and signal technology, has improved exponentially in the past decade. Cameramen aboard motorcycles and hovering helicopters can provide images that make you feel like you’re in the middle of the peloton. Top-notch announcers such as the Phil Liggett-Paul Sherwin-Bob Roll team at Versus in the United States bring the action to life, from aggressive mountainside attacks to furious sprint finishes.