Ever since it began in 1903, the annual Tour de France cycle race has been a spectacle that engages everyone in France. Cycling is a very popular sport here and who wears the prestigious maillot jaune (yellow jersey) of fastest rider is a hot topic in bars and cafés. With 198 cyclists from 22 teams taking part this year, there is plenty to talk about.
Small villages and towns often have a festival to celebrate the race passing through. The moment when the riders flash by in a flicker of brightly coloured lycra, followed by support vehicles and the media in a motorised stampede, may be brief, but for the local citizenry it’s a great excuse to make merry. Why not join in the festivities if you are near one of the stages? The Tour organisers estimate that spectators spend an average of six hours watching the race – so be prepared to make a day of it.
The race takes a different route every year. This year, the 98th Tour began on Saturday July 2nd in the Vendée on France’s west coast. Over three strenuous weeks, the competitors will travel the country, cycling 21 stages and covering a total distrance of 3,430.5 kilometres (more than 2,131 miles). The stages are varied and include time-trials, sprints, mountain climbs, and days pedalling along country roads that challenge fitness, endurance, and commitment. Let’s hope that there are no major casualties, like that of the British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died in 1967 during a mountain stage on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. His last words were (perhaps inaccurately) reported to be: “Just put me back on the bloody bike!”
Take a look at the official website (there is an English-language option) for a full guide to the course, as well as more statistics than you can shake a stick at. Go to YouTube for a flyover video showing towns along the route. Then you’ll be well primed to join in the discussion of who will eventually take the trophy when the race finishes in Paris on Sunday July 24th.
Before that, there are chances to witness mountain stages in southwest France (such as Pau to Lourdes, Friday July 15th) as well as still-testing but flatter stages (such as Limoux to Montpelier, Sunday July 17th), with the final week being mainly exhausting mountain stages between Gap, Serre-Chevalier, and Alpe-d’Huez. Don’t expect to see anything in the Drôme department on Monday July 18th – it’s a rest day.
The final day starts at Créteil in the suburbs of Paris, and the route passes through Vitry-sur-Seine and Ivry-sur-Seine before skirting the Bois de Vincennes (at the end of métro line 1 and a lovely place to visit at any time, with an imposing medieval castle and lots of places to picnic or stroll in the woods), before arriving where all grand French events take place, the Champs-Elysées.