Insider's Perspective on Touring the Tour de France

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 Proven?al 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.

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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.

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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.

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