Posted by: Jennifer Sage | June 16, 2008

Viewing the departure city at the Tour de France

If you’re going over to watch the Tour de France, viewing the actual departure is rather a fun event, but from a cycling standpoint can be a little anti-climactic. 

The departure and arrival cities go all out to promote their towns. You may not know this, but they’ve paid the organizers of the Tour a pretty centime to have the privilege of being a Ville Départ or Ville Arrivée. The promotional opportunities are immense, and they will be viewed by millions of televisions around the world, so they put their best foot forward and will often come up with creative ways to attract the TV cameras. Not to mention the tax revenues they receive from hotels, restaurants and other commerces who benefit.

For non-resort towns this is a boon. But do not think that every town or hotel is happy to have the Tour come through! First of all, traffic is a pain, and locals have to endure all-day road closures, sometimes on important throughways.  Also, from the hotels’ perspective, they might actually lose money, especially in popular resorts.  European holiday makers tend to stay a week or more at each destination when they travel, and when the Tour comes through, hotels are in demand for only a night or two, often right in the middle of a popular week with their regular clientele. So getting hotel rooms in popular resort areas is very difficult. First of all, many are booked 6-12 months in advance. Others might raise their rates for those few days, or require a minimum stay of 3-5 nights to make up for lost revenue from their regular clientele who do not want to be inconvenienced by the Tour. (Far more French are cycling fans than in the US, but not everyone is a cycling fan!)

The few hours prior to the stage departure is a huge festival. There will be events for kids, perhaps a carnival, cycling demonstrations, parades, jazz bands, give-aways, plays, or whatever creative programming the town comes up with. The photo below is at the start in Annemasse near Geneva, 2004 Tour de France.

Festivities in Annemasse 2004 Tour de France

The departure is a good place to buy all your favorite Tour de France paraphernalia and clothing, as all sponsors will set up tables and sell jerseys and other items.  The photo below was taken at the 2005 Tour, stage 5, at Chambord in the Loire Valley. I shot the photo after the peleton departed and the sponsors had already begun clearing up, but can you imagine a more beautiful backdrop than the elegant 16th century Chateau de Chambord?

Tour de France 2005 Stage 5 pre-race festivities at chambord

Some departure or arrival towns will put their event schedule information up on their tourist office websites. You can google the town name along with “Office de Tourisme” to find their websites. Only the most popular destinations will be in English however.

Hang out by the team buses for potential photos or autographs of your favorite riders, or to see them warming up (especially if it’s a time trial).  Only authorized or credentialed personnel are allowed into the cordoned off area, but you can certainly watch! Here is Team Postal arriving in Annemasse in 2004 (that’s Lance in the middle).

Team Postal arrives in Annemasse TDF 2004

Every single rider must sign in on the stage prior to the race. They make a big fanfare of this and often announce each rider as he signs in at the podium, with large crowds gathering to watch. Notice in the photo below the band standing on stage.

Tour de France 2005 chambord signing in

Riders will begin accumulating at the staging area about 30-minutes prior to the starting time. You’ll want to get here early next to the fence, or you’ll be on tiptoes the whole time. Great place for photos or autographs. 

Tour de France 2005 Stage 5 Chambord, riders give autographs

In 2005, David Zabriskie had been in the yellow jersey the day before this stage in Chambord, for the Team Time Trial. Unfortunately, David had fallen and lost the yellow jersey to none other than Lance Armstrong. Everyone was wondering where the yellow jersey was at the start of this stage, you could hear everyone saying “Ou est le maillot jaune?”. But then we saw Lance in his Discovery jersey. In a show of solidarity for Zabriskie’s misfortune, he didn’t feel he deserved the yellow jersey and did not wear it. This photo was shot literally 3 minutes before the scheduled departure time. But rules are rules, and though sometimes Lance felt like he should have been exempt from some of those rules, the yellow jersey sponsor Crédit Lyonnais pays millions of euros to have someone wear that jersey every stage, so they made Lance go quickly and change!

Tour de France 2005 Stage 5 Chambord

Except for time trials, every stage starts of with a gun with a mass start.  The riders just casually roll off in a group, as if they are going for a Sunday ride with friends – they have 5-6 hours of pedaling ahead of them so no one is in a hurry. That’s why it can be a little anti-climactic. So go to a départ for the fanfare, color and photos, but not to see any exciting cycling!

Next: the Ville d’Arrivé.

Ride on,



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