The Tour de France is the most prestigious bicycle race in the world, covering over 3,600 km (2,200 miles) and lasting for three weeks in July. The race, which attracts riders from around the world, is broken up into one-day stages. The racers’ individual aggregate times for each stage are used to determine the overall winner at the end of the race. Whoever has the lowest aggregate time at the end of each day’s stage wears the coveted yellow jersey.
Even though the course varies a bit every year, the Tour de France always culminates in Paris, with the end of the final stage along the Champs-Élysées. As you may imagine, this is a huge event in Paris, and anyone planning to attend the final stage of the race must be prepared to arrive very early to get a decent viewing spot.
The 21-day race usually includes two days of rest, and sometimes these rest days are used to transport the racers from a finish line in one town to a start in another town. The circuit alternates each year between a clockwise and a counter-clockwise circuit of France and the race itself is one of the most physically demanding athletic events in the world, with the total elevations of the climbing stages compared to climbing Mt. Everest three times!
Usually there are around 21 teams, each with nine riders. Entry in the Tour de France is by invitation to teams that the Amaury Sports Organization selects. While most days consist of basic races where the first rider over the finish line wins, other days are ridden against the clock, sometimes by individuals and sometimes by teams. Anyone who has a chance of winning has to be able to master the gruelling mountain stages. Most stages take place in France, though sometimes the racers cross into other countries for some stages.
The first Tour de France was in 1903 and consisted of five stages. The race was lengthened later, but fewer riders could afford to take time off work. To encourage more entrants, each racer averaging 20 kph on the stages was given an allowance of 5 francs per day, what a worker could expect for a day’s wages in a factory. Today the Tour de France is the premier international cycling event, and you do not need a ticket to attend.
But crowds for most stages are big, and anyone who wants to watch some of the stages should prepare to camp out or stay in a camper van overnight before the race comes by. Because some roads are closed well in advance of the race, you may have to park away from the route and hike there early to secure a good spot for viewing. Or you could base your holiday in a town where the Tour passes through and make a point to get to the route early to watch.
All this goes double for watching the final stage along the Champs-Élysées. It will be crowded from mid-morning on, even though racers aren’t usually expected till mid-afternoon. You would be wise to take along plenty of food and water as well as sunscreen. If you have to buy it there, the cost is quite high, and you risk losing your viewing spot. But for those willing to brave the crowds, the finish is a spectacular photo opportunity as well as general celebration.