Tour de Front Row

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.

Getting in gear

While catching a glimpse of the Tour de France is a day trip for many, there’s little preparation when the race comes right in front of your house. You first need to find out roughly what time the race will be passing. The Tour de France’s web site shows estimated times, but the easiest way to know when it’s closing in is to put on the TV.

French broadcast TV channels show from four to eight hours a day of the Tour, depending on the stage. For the grueling mountain climbs, either on weekends or the July 14th holiday, they generally show the entire stage. If you watch where the race is, you’ll have an idea how long before it reaches you.

Even with the TV off, however, you can’t miss the Tour de France convoy coming your way. It starts early in the morning, or even the night before, as crews come through with trucks and put up barriers to block every intersection along the route. (Think about how much work this is, with stages that can be over 200 km or 125 miles.) There’s also a member of the local or national police at just about every intersection and in areas likely to attract a lot of viewers.

Then come the cars. Dozens of cars. Hundreds of cars. A couple thousand cars, in fact, heading from the city where they spent the night to the town where the day’s stage will finish. Starting at mid-morning, with the roads closed to normal traffic, you see car after car containing team crews, journalists, and race organizers heading along the road. There are periods where the road is quiet, but never for more than a minute or so.

Ad mad

About an hour before the first cyclists are due to come begins the first attraction of the day: the advertising caravan.

The Tour de France is not a charity: it’s a privately-run moneymaking operation. With a total purse of some €3.5 million (about $4.5 million), the race needs income. Part of this is borne by the cities and towns that host the Tour: it costs €60,000 ($78,000) to be the town where a stage starts and €90,000 ($117,000) for a finish. In addition, the town must provide infrastructure and cover expenses for security; in 2011, the small resort town of l’Alpe-d’Huez spent €280,000 ($364,000) on this. Of course, these towns benefit from the many people who fill the local hotels and from being nationally and internationally televised.

But the most visible part of the advertising iceberg is the “caravane publicitaire”: the long advertising caravan of cars, trucks, and floats that heads up the race. Leaving about an hour before the peloton, these vehicles feature booming music and gesticulating young people tossing out samples, stickers, and hats. Kids and adults alike lean forward on the edge of the road trying to grab the goodies tossed their way. And there’s generally one bottled water company that has a float that — you guessed it — sprays water on the spectators, something welcome in hot summers.

The lull

After the advertising caravan, there’s a bit of a lull, and most of the locals head back home to watch the race on TV to see when it’s getting closer. (Mobile apps providing live video have made that unnecessary.) For a while, you see the occasional car or motorcycle go by, and spectators gather in little groups to discuss the status of the race, what’s happened in previous stages, and who they think the winner will be.

If anyone has a radio, people gather around in silence to hear the status of the race, who just attacked, and how much time there is between the leaders and the rest of the pack. And long-time fans of the Tour swap stories about their favorite memories of both current and past cyclists. It’s a relaxed but expectant atmosphere. Anticipation fills the air until the first sounds of the impending arrival. This is the pre-game analysis by the armchair commentators.

Standing by the side of the road over the years, I’ve met people who’ve followed the Tour for decades, who’ve travelled across the hexagon to watch their heroes.[1] One senior citizen will recount memories of the great Bernard Hinault, and another will raise him, telling of the exploits of the eternal second-place rider, Raymond Poulidor.

Or someone will recall the 9th stage of the 1996 Tour, which started about two hours north of my town. That day, July 9, the snow was so thick on the Col du Galibier that the stage was rerouted, and shortened from 176 km to only 46. And I share my story of seeing Stephan Roche ride into the center of Dublin on the top of a double-decker bus in 1987, a couple of days after winning that year’s Tour, when hundreds of thousands of people started singing “Molly Malone.”

Two things give away the fact that the peloton is closing in. There are more motorcycles and cars, but, above all, there are helicopters. To provide excellent TV coverage, the French production team has camera operators on motorcycles and in helicopters, and a plane flies high overhead to relay the images from the ground to satellites.

The riders approach

When we hear the hum of the helicopters approaching, we all move a bit closer to the road, and anyone who has a radio or smartphone starts telling others who’s in the lead and by how much. The gendarmes stop their friendly conversations with the spectators and turn their backs on them, ready to ensure that no one runs across the road when the cyclists come.

Finally, we see the first helicopter flying askew alongside the road. It flies at about a 30-degree yaw so the camera, on the side of the craft, can get good images.[2] The second helicopter is not far behind. And then comes the peloton.

Now everyone leans forward to get the first glimpse of the sweating riders. Everyone with a camera starts snapping photos, or shooting videos, to remember what it was like this day to watch the champions ride within inches of them. With a number of motorcycles in front to clear the road — a combination of gendarmes, photographers, and camera operators — the mass of bicycles comes up the road with a loud hissing sound: 400 tires rolling on the pavement.

The pack passes

As the multifarious beast passes in front of us, we all applaud the superhuman effort required of these riders and cheer on their favorites. We all try to catch a glimpse of our favorite rider. It’s hard to tell them apart, though you can spot the leader easily by his yellow jersey.

If it’s late in a stage, you can see the suffering on the faces of the riders, and if it’s hot, you see them pouring water over their heads to cool off. At the side of the road, children keep their eyes open for any empty water bottles the riders may toss to the side of the road, hoping to grab the best souvenir of the race that nobody can buy. The lucky ones clutch their souvenir tightly while they try to remember which rider threw it away.

Sometimes it’s slightly different when there is an “échappée,” or a breakaway. This is when one or more riders leave the peloton to try to either win a stage or simply “show their jersey,” so their sponsors’ logos get on TV for much of the day. In that case, the whole thing is split in two (or more, depending on how late in a stage it is), with cars in front of and behind each group of riders.

These riders are the real heroes of the race: the ones who push themselves the hardest, only to often get caught just before the finish. They get a rousing round of applause, because everyone knows how hard they worked to stay in front of the pack.

Or when the peloton is split in several parts, such as during climbs, the “gruppetto,” a group of riders who can’t quite keep up, follows the pack, maybe several minutes behind. We all give them extra special applause, because even those who come in last have suffered, sometimes more than the leaders who have their teammates to help them.

And it’s over

And then the riders are gone, followed by dozens of team cars with bicycles perched on their roofs. Then more race cars, a couple of ambulances, another dozen motorcycles, and the “voiture balai,” or the broom wagon, the van that picks up the riders who have given up during the stage and who will ride to the finish on four wheels.

The traffic thins out over the next few minutes until all that’s left is the memory of the riders whizzing by, and the photos that people start checking on their cameras and cellphones. The gendarmes start removing the barriers from the intersections after the majority of the cars have gone by, then head back to their usual posts.

Slowly, the spectators gather up their things, say goodbye to the people they’d been chatting with. Some may stick around to share more stories of Tours past, but most head home, where they’ll turn on the TV and watch the end of the stage to see what the race is really about.

(This article was originally published in Issue 5 of The Magazine)


  1. The hexagon is a word the French use for their country, because of its roughly six-sided shape.  ↩
  2. The yaw axis is the rotation of a craft against the line of motion in which it travels. A helicopter can hold a yaw rotation while traveling forward.  ↩