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(This article was originally published in Issue 5 of The Magazine)
If you count the number of people who watch the Tour de France in person, the race is the most popular sporting event in the world. The playing field encompasses the roads of France, and three-quarters of French people have seen the Tour go by at least once.
From open roads to steep, sinuous climbs, spectators line the roadside to watch the peloton — the pack of riders — go by for just a few seconds. Some people drive up mountain roads in campers and wait for two or three days to catch a glimpse of their favorite riders, and others just walk out in front of their homes.
Its logistics rival that of an army heading off to battle. There are hundreds of vehicles, thousands of people, and a schedule that has to be respected to the minute across more than 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) over three weeks, all for a sporting event that attracts about 12 million spectators from dozens of countries. And, best of all, it’s free.
For a dozen years, I lived on the outskirts of a town in the French Alps, on a road leading up to one of the toughest climbs in the race: the Col d’Izoard. The route of the Tour de France changes each year, but the race comes back often to the most spectacular climbs, such as that mountain. In 12 years, the Tour de France came past my house three times; other cycling races, heading to or from the same climb, whizzed by a few times as well.
The big picture
Napoleon Bonaparte said that an army marches on its stomach. The army of the Tour de France, which enables spectators to see the race for a few seconds, consists of 4,500 people, 2,400 vehicles, 198 riders and their retinues, and an “advertising caravan” of 160 vehicles that toss 14 million tchotchkes to spectators lining the roads. A phalanx of daredevil motorcyclists carry camera operators to show the race from inside the pack, and helicopters and airplanes help beam live video to satellites for broadcast in 190 countries.
As for the spectators, the 12 million watchers stay there an average of six and a half hours — though to get a good seat in the toughest climbs, you need to stake out your spot a couple of days ahead of time. And keeping order is no mean feat either; there are more than 23,000 law-enforcement officers involved during the three-week period.
But none of that matters when you’re watching the Tour in your own town.