A day’s stage of the Tour de France looks a bit like an instalment of the Hunger Games -an unsympathetic game of elimination in which 198 riders start together and ride progressively faster for 150-plus kilometres until a combination of tired bodies, nasty crashes and mechanical mishaps leaves one small group of riders out in front.
The finale inevitably involves either a flat all-out sprint or an unfathomably steep climb up some ridiculous mountain, where the roads narrow and the riders enter a human tunnel of overexcited fans who lose all sense of self-control, screaming and running around the riders like they’ve completely lost their minds.
The riders battle through the crowds, fighting fatigue and their own mental demons, wrestling with each other as the tension rises and team rivalries start to spill over. Bodies are forced to the absolute max, as riders begin to drop off one by one, ultimately leaving one rider who can grind it out to the line pushing past everyone else, pushing past all the pain, fatigue and aching limbs to say screw you all, I am the strongest today. I am the strongest despite the ultimate test of hell you just put me through.
Fail to make the time cut, don’t bother coming back tomorrow. If you do, you get to go home, rest up and come back tomorrow and do it all again. And every other day after that for the next 23 days.
It’s the toughest endurance event on earth, without question. My own feelings on the Tour de France have always been that if you make it onto a Tour de France team and finish the three weeks, that in itself is a massive achievement. Putting aside placement or any thoughts of winning stages or, dare I say, one of the coveted jerseys. Just finishing the race – is HUGE.
This is a race with no sympathy. No room for moaners, wusses or posers. This race will weed out the weak and spit out the pretenders. It’s part of what makes this race truly great. It’s the hardest and the best of cyclists, competing against each other on some of the world’s toughest climbs across the French Alps, Pyrenees and Massive Centrale.
I’ve wanted to go to the Tour de France ever since I read David Walsh’s book on Lance Armstrong – Seven Deadly Sins. Not for the reasons you might think! David wrote about driving around following the tour as a journalist from place to place, day after day and just being apart of the tour story. Feeling the drama as it unfolded around the French countryside.
This year, I went.
I didn’t follow the tour for the full three weeks, because of work… and other boring reasons. I followed it for a week. I greeted the tour as if came into Pau, witnessing Marcel Kittel soar to victory in a sprint victory, before then moving eastwards to Rodez and Laissac. It was magic. The atmosphere in the french towns on the day the race was due to arrive was fantastic – pure joy and like the biggest parade you could imagine. Old and young come out, all day to line the streets and raise the atmosphere.
What You Can Expect Spectating at The Tour…
You will stand for four-five hours under a hot sun if you want a good spot next to the barriers at the finish line… and you will only see the cyclists for five seconds (ish). If you’re clever, you pick a spot along the route with some sharp corners or on a climb where the riders are forced to slow. That way, it takes much longer for the riders to move past you and you get to see them for longer. Also, these spots are much less populated so you don’t need to arrive here until maybe 30 minutes before the peloton is due to arrive.
It’s good craic waiting for the race to arrive so don’t be put off by the long wait time. You can chat to the other people waiting and get to hear lots of good stories. There’s also the caravan which always arrives ahead of the peloton, which is basically a big parade. The finish line area also has lots of big screens showing the actual race, which you can watch as you wait. If you’re the chilled variety and are not fussed about being right next to the barriers, you can also bring a fold up chair, your book and a picnic and just sit at the side of the road and chill out until the race is about to arrive.
My experience of being apart of the Tour de France was fantastic and I loved it. The atmosphere was definitely worth travelling for and is something special that I will always remember. And as for the south of France, in general, I’m happy to report that it was beautiful, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable. In fact, I’m already thinking I may be making this trip an annual event.
Tomorrow, Chris Froome will ride his bike from Montegron to Paris with a glass of champagne in hand, tipping his hat to his fourth Tour de France victory. This will be the fourth time he has proven himself to be the toughest, grittiest, strongest cyclist in the world.
Or just the most stubborn.