Insider's Perspective on Touring the Tour de France

Of course, having a car means being responsible for navigation. One of my favorite moments last year came when Austin and I went totally astray while trying to find the start one morning. We ended up in a Mediterranean village with cobbled, narrow streets; it looked like it hadn't changed a whit since Napoleon ran the country. I stepped inside a patisserie to ask directions. The shop was the size of a walk-in closet, but the smell of fresh breads and pastries was heavenly. Not only did I walk out with the proper directions, but also with the most warm, feather-light pain au chocolat I have ever had the privilege of eating. Which brings me to the next point...

Get a Map

And not just any map. Michelin's France: Tourist and Motoring Atlas shows every street and lane in the nation. Buy this. At 420 spiral-bound pages and 3.1 pounds, it takes up its share of luggage space, but it's worth its weight in peace of mind.

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And stay off the highways. As beautiful as France can be, a freeway is a freeway. The Tour follows two-lane country roads, and so should you. You'll travel past fields of lavender that look like giant purple carpets thrown across the landscape; you'll ease past acres of golden sunflowers and come upon castles in the middle of nowhere, built before Columbus discovered the New World. Go ahead. Get lost. Half the fun of getting anywhere in France is losing your way on side roads. Having said that, no one likes to stay lost for long. So again—get the map.

Eat the Food

Forget, if just for a week or two, every single thing you have ever read about low-carb, low-fat, low-anything dieting. To properly experience the Tour de France, you must not overlook the fabled culinary offerings of this country. The wines—even the homemade table wines served in bottles without labels—are always splendid.

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Think About Skipping Paris

I know it's the completion of the Tour, but I find the finale in Paris to be anticlimactic. The crowds are just too big (and accidental, as if they've stumbled onto a parade), and the riders are suddenly distant after the relative intimacy of the preceding stages. To experience the Tour, I prefer remote nooks like L'Alpe d'Huez or towns such as N?mes, rich with history and where the smells of rosemary and roasting lamb fill the air.

Having said that, I never skip Paris.

I get up at dawn and go for a run along the Seine. The city is quiet and mysterious. Then I stroll through the Mus?e d'Orsay around noon before doubling back to the Place de la Concorde to watch the Tour come to an end. It is a moment grand and glorious, with anthems playing and crowds cheering. That's why I go to Paris. There is romance in that glory, the romance of pushing human limits (as the riders have done so gallantly), that vital daily infusion of joie de vivre, and the hope that each of us might be inspired to push ourselves to the limit, and beyond.

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By Martin Dugard
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