In between the two mountain ranges will be a dash through the pastel beauty of Provence, in which every traveler should revel at least once. The weather of the second and third weeks is warmer, the ambience more pastoral, and—for that ultimate Tour experience—the fans more rabid.
The Germans and Dutch, with reputations for intense Tour revelry, will line the roads during the Alpine stages. The French will cheer for one of their own to win on Bastille Day (July 14). Spanish fans, not to be outdone, will turn out in force for the brutal Pyrenean climbs. Theirs is a particular brand of cycling mania that must be seen to be believed.
Know Where to See the Riders
If your priority is a favorite rider's autograph, go to the starting line. Each team has its own tour bus, and the riders disembark each morning just prior to the start (a team's top rider traditionally gets off the bus last). They stretch, talk to the fans, hop on their bikes, and ride off to sign in. This is the best chance to see the racers standing still. The end of a stage, by contrast, offers few opportunities for autographs. As soon as the riders finish, they are whisked back to the team bus to begin their recovery.
If your goal is to watch the action up close, be among the throngs lining the road for a mountain stage. Not only do the spectators close in around the riders, leaving a path no more than three feet wide (close enough to touch the riders, but don't—that's a major faux pas), but the steep terrain means the cyclists are going slowly instead of whizzing past at 30 mph.
A trick many French locals employ is to pick a spot on the course, then watch the live feed of the event on television in a cafe. Just before the race passes by, they step outside to see the cyclists in person, then head back inside to watch the finish on TV.
Or bring a sleeping bag. Either way, plan ahead. Hotel rooms are at a premium, particularly close to the mountain stages. Camping outdoors is very popular at the Tour, so it's not considered an indignity to sleep under the stars. Personally, I like to be prepared for any eventuality. My buddy Austin and I, for instance, often found ourselves working late in the pressroom last year. By the time we were done, most hotels were full. So we made do. We slept two nights outdoors, six nights in small roadside hotels, two evenings in five-star luxury, and even spent a night on the floor of a local family's home.
Rent a Car
It is possible to follow the Tour by train. People do it. But to follow the Tour properly, a certain command of one's own agenda is mandatory. A car means full mobility, making it possible to see the riders at several points during a stage, stop for lunch in a quiet village, return to the race, then retire to your hotel. You can also drive up the winding roads of the Alps and Pyrenees to watch the riveting mountaintop finishes, traditionally the most dramatic battles of the Tour. A train means schedules, a brief glimpse of the riders at the finish, hordes of like-minded travelers battling for a room in the same station hotel, and no access to the mountains.