Posted by: Jennifer Sage | July 3, 2008

Where to watch, what to do, and what to bring to the Tour de France!

Continuing my series on how and where to view the Tour de France…

You’re riding your bike up a mountain stage of the Tour de France, such as the Tourmalet or Galibier, and you’ve left very early so you won’t be forced to stop by policemen. As you ride up, make mental notes about potential viewing spots along the way that you might return to. When you get to the top, after you take your celebratory photos, you might decide it’s far too crowded with no place to sit, no way to get near the roadway for good viewing, no shade and little to no access to water or bathrooms. Most cols in Europe have a restaurant at or near the top, which are always like oases to cyclists, but with the crowds, they might not be accessible.

Where to watch

It might be time to ride back down to that spot you saw on the way up.  Here’s some things to look for as you’re riding up:

1. Try to be near a vendor if possible, unless you are well prepared with a camelback, food and numerous water bottles. Depending on the mountain, I’ve often come across entrepreneurial mobile vendors who’ve set up shop along the way. If you’re near a restaurant/bar, you’ll also have access to bathrooms, but don’t expect them to be clean. There’s also most likely a lot of trees out there… This is the mountains!

2. Shade. I’ve already emphasized that one numerous times on previous posts!

3. Look at your Michelin map. The steepness of the climb is indicated by “chevrons” or arrows pointing in the direction of the climb. One chevron is 5-9% grade, two chevrons is 9-13%, and three chevrons is over 13%. You won’t see many triple chevrons, and if you do, they are very short. As you climb, you’ll know when you’re on a double chevron section – that point when you wish you had lower gears. For maximum viewing of pain management by the riders, position yourself on a double chevron section. This is far more interesting to me than fighting crowds at the top. This also may increase your chances of being on television, as they love to film the riders on the most extreme climbs.

4. Station yourself above a switchback if possible. You can see both the caravan and the riders coming in two directions as in the photo below on the Croix Fry 2004.

TDF 2004 Croix Fry switchback

5. Stand near (or far away from) a camping car with a group of young foreigners (German, Swiss, Dutch, wherever). This can be good or bad! They’re on vacation and will most likely be partying hard. Maybe that’s your style, maybe not. I’ve been near a fun Dutch group who shared their beer and translated from the radio, telling us who was in the breakaways and who was leading. And the Dutch always speak English! They had painted their favorite riders names on the road as well. But I’ve been near others who were so rowdy we ended up moving a hundred feet lower.

Of course, you may find yourself near a character such as Madame Jalaberthe! She may share her beer with you!

The route up Alpe d\'Huez

What to bring

Be prepared for any kind of weather and for lots of down time! I’ve been lucky and experienced mostly hot and sunny days, as well as some cold and windy, but still sunny. We’ve had some rain, but not torential all-day downpours like I’ve seen on TV. And always remember, it is possible that it can snow in the Alpes or Pyrenees on the mountaintops, even in July. So pack everything when leaving your country. Check the weather report the day before the stage, and again that morning. My suggestion is to bring with you the following:

1. A camelback. Roadie’s might rebel, but you’ll be glad you did. Not only will you have more water, but it can serve as a pillow or seat cushion, and you can carry more. Look at this great photo of Mike on the Croix Fry in 2004 with his camelback (yes he has a helmet – on his handlebars). Then notice the man applauding as he climbed – you’ll get lots of that! It’s very motivating. Then notice the two men with the accordions. It’s such a party everywhere you go!

Mike on the Croix Fry 2004 Tour de France

2. A rear carrying case. They make them very light these days. So you might not fly up the mountain, but you can carry the rest of the things on this list, and put your camera, extra lenses and lots of food.

3. Rubber flip flops, or if you want to hike around, some sturdier shoes. Standing around in your bike shoes for hours is not fun. If you must, then put your SPDs on for this ride, and lose the Looks.

4. Real food. Goos and Power Bars suck on a long hot day, and hey, you’re in France where they have great food and a typical French picnic with local specialties of fromage de chevre, saucisson et tomates on a baguette, is one of the most enjoyable parts of cycling in France. Tie the baguette to your camelback or top tube if you need to! Look at the map, and determine the last village that should have a store before your climb (or part way up). Stop no matter what, even if just for water.  One word of warning (spoken from the voice of experience): don’t be surprised if that chocolate bar melts into a gooey mess inside of your bag on a real hot day.

5. First aid kit. At least one person in your group should have this – do not forget this one! The day you do is the day you’ll need it.

6. Sunscreen and lip balm.

7. Hat. You will need this one, but if you forget, you can buy a souvenir Gilligan-style yellow hat from the vendors, called Le Bob, or just expect to acquire a KOM cap or even a goofy umbrella hat from the publicity caravan. Here’s us in 2005 in the Loire Valley with our schwag, including a cold beer (who cares if it was non-alcoholic – it was perfect on a hot day)!

free schwag at the Tour de France 2005

7. Rain jacket, windbreaker, and arm warmers no matter what, and if the weather calls for it, even warmer clothing, such as leg warmers, long gloves, long sleeved jersey, fleece, etc. If you don’t use any of it, they can serve as something to sit on or a pillow. Even though I told everyone to bring all of this in 2007 to the top of the Galibier for Stage 9, because we had experienced such hot weather the two days before, they didn’t believe me and froze. Fortunately a kind older French couple lent my shivering clients a blanket! Don’t let sunny weather fool you when you’re going to the tops of the Alpes or Pyrenees.

Cold on top of the Galibier Tour de France 2007

8. A bandana. I’ve found so many uses for it, from a do-rag, to napkin or towel, for wrapping leftover food (tie it in a bundle), for first aid uses, etc.

9. Small kleenex packets. Do not expect any bathroom to have enough toilet paper (even when the Tour crowds are not around). Also bring some ziplock or plastic bags to dispose of your kleenex and other trash, and carry it with you until you find a trash can. Please, don’t leave the kleenex behind that tree, no matter how much more you find back there!

10. Something to sit on. You may be on a rock wall, the hot pavement, a gravel or dirt roadside, or if you’re lucky, some grass. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but those airline blankets are a perfect size and are lightweight to boot…. (They also double as a jacket if you get cold).

About 5 of years ago at the Tour, they sold a plastic, blow up bag from the mobile souvenir trucks that go back and forth prior to the stage. As a bag, it held the schwag you got from the publicity caravan. When you blow it up, it became a pillow to sit on! I loved mine, but I haven’t seen it in years so I always bring it from the States. A blowup neck pillow might work the same, and it packs very small when un-inflated.

11. Here’s a new one I’ve not tried, but will next year (unfortunately I won’t be at the Tour this year). Bring your iPhone or Blackberry for live updates on the Tour while you’re waiting! Make sure you have an international package for web access so you don’t come home to a $600 bill!

What to do while waiting

If you’re not glued to your Blackberry, I think my client Barry has the best idea below. This would not be possible at the top of a col, but we were about 2/3 of the way up the Plateau de Bonascre in the Pyrenées with plenty of shade and room to spread out. The top was mobbed with orange-shirted Basques, so we left it to them. The only thing I would tell Barry to do differently is to bring large water bottles, not the small ones. But notice how they have a secondary function as a pillow!

Barry takes a nap on stage 15 TDF 2005

You may want to bring something to do. A book, Sudoko, whatever you need to keep you occupied for that 3+ hours that you wait. If you have sturdy shoes, you may want to go hiking around, as long as someone in your group guards your spot. It’s always fun to meet your new neighbors – who knows, you may acquire a friend for life!

Remember, the publicity caravan will keep you occupied for about an hour. I’ll have more on that in another post!

Ride on,


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