Here's what I like about covering the Tour de France each July: wine tastings and Camembert in the press room, delicate croissants purchased fresh from a village bakery, and lazy cafe mornings spent reading the International Herald Tribune under a Provençal sun.
Oh, and the bike race.
Let me fill you in on a little secret: if you want to watch the Tour de France, stay home and catch it on TV. You'll see more of the action. But to fully experience the Tour, with its competitive drama and pageantry, mere television images will hardly suffice. You must go in person.
It is a wondrous experience, in many ways life-changing -- before my first Tour, I had no idea there was a void in my life that only Camembert could fill. But it's not simple. Following the Tour demands preparation, logistical savvy and a great deal of flexibility. Here is everything you need to know.
Get acquainted with the course.
The Tour de France is more than 2,000 miles and takes 21 stages to complete, with a prologue and two rest days thrown in. It is contested counterclockwise around the nation in even years, and clockwise in odd.
This year's Tour begins with a prologue in London on July 7, and then hops the English Channel for a clockwise loop of France, via Belgium, before ending in Paris on July 29. The course will head due south along the spine of the Alps. There will be a four-day stretch in Provence, then three decisive days in the Pyrenees before the riders turn north for Paris. How you experience the Tour depends on which of these stages you attend. For a full breakdown of stage lengths, mountain profiles and start and finish cities, go to the Tour's official website: www.letour.fr.
Skip the first week.
London will be amazing, but the crowds will be ridiculous. The first week of the Tour is traditionally rainy and cold. The stages are flat, notable mainly for the dazzling sprint finishes, which often feature punishing crashes. But the Tour really starts cooking during the second week, when it reaches the Alps, and then again during the third week's Pyrenees stages.
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.
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.
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.
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 Nîmes, 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 Musée 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.
Martin Dugard is an Active Expert and the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing Lance (Little, Brown, 2005). Contact him at www.martindugard.com.
Martin will be blogging daily for Active.com from the 2007 Tour de France. Look for coverage in our Tour special section beginning in early July.