Sunday, July 24, 2011

So you wanna go to the Tour de France?

Recently, we've had several requests for details of how we planned and executed our trip to the Tour de France. We didn't go with a cycling tour group or have VIP access, but we didn't need either one. If you have questions after reading, feel free to email questions to and we'll do our best to answer them.

So you wanna go to the Tour de France. Live. In person. So close that your musette strap could "accidentally" wrap around Ricardo Ricco’s handlebars (if he was actually racing). Well, we have some expert tips for planning and executing a trip to Le Tour. And by “expert”, we mean we’ve been ONCE.
This trip isn't for the casual race watcher. If you could take it or leave it, you'd better leave this trip. This is for the diehard fan who has both Eurosport and VS on everyday of the Tour. It's for those of you who schedule your trip to the beach in June because you aren't sure that the condo at the beach gets Versus. If you have Colavita olive oil in your cabinet, Terrapin Rye in your fridge, and Haribo in your candy bowl because you appreciate each and every company that supports cycling, well, this trip is for you.

There are a few deal breakers for planning trips to the Tour de France. The first is people. It’s like anything else; it sounds great to everybody right now. We’re still in “Tour trance”, which means we are so involved in this race that we can just picture that this time next year, we’ll be sticking our heads out the sunroof of Leopard Trek’s car, yelling at Andy Schleck. First of all, that spot is obviously reserved for Eddy Merckx. Secondly, if you attempt to get in the team car, you will be arrested by really attractive gendarmes who might throw you into French jail. And while not as bad as Turkish prison, it still isn’t great to go there while on vacation. *This is not an admission that we know anything firsthand about French jail. Nor is it a denial.
Anyway, everyone wants in on the trip to France. Sometimes people can make it work, and sometimes life gets in the way. A real bummer though, would be to plan your trip around just one other person, and then they can’t go. If you start planning with a group of people, say 4-6 friends, chances are, that at least a couple are really going to make it work. So your trip has a good chance of survival. If you’re comfortable traveling alone, it’s not a bad trip, but you need to practice the language. But really, this is something you should do with friends.
There are plenty of people who’d love a trip to France. If you’re going to see the race, make sure your group has the same goal that you do. If you’re traveling 3,000 miles to see a bike race, the whole group needs to be going for the bike race. That doesn’t mean your group can’t have other objectives, but everyone in the group needs to be on the same page. There’s a lot of waiting in watching a bike race in person. Someone who isn’t that into it is going to get bored quickly.
For us, our main goal was to see the Tour de France. We had some smaller objectives, but we wanted to see THE RACE. Anything else we saw or did was a bonus.

The second deal breaker for your trip to France is time. A week is ideal. You really need that much time to get your body acclimated to the time change and jet lag you’ll experience. Plus, it goes by way too fast. Try to make sure your group has at least 7 days. We definitely recommend going to the Tour de France the LAST week of the Tour.
Not that we wouldn’t want to see the Grand Depart, or the second week’s climbing stages, but the final week is special, as you’ve witnessed this year.
Getting to France on Sunday before the last week is good because the next day is usually a rest day and you can use that day to recover from the flight and to travel to Tuesday’s stage, which probably won’t be anywhere close to Paris. In 2010, that stage was in the Pyrenees and this year it was in the foothills of the Alps. On the map, France looks kinda small. You might be thinking, “Aw, that’s like driving from Oklahoma to the Tour of Missouri in 2009. I did it in 4 hours. France is a lot smaller than the U.S. Besides, it’s just three inches from Paris on the map.” Let me set you straight now. Those three inches means 1,000 kilometers. Not really, but you do need to research all types of transportation, because if you choose to drive from Paris, it really is a loooong way to either the Alps or the Pyrenees.
We recommend using the TGV. It’s a high-speed train that you sometimes see racing alongside the Tour on tv. It’s very clean, comfortable, and fast. You can buy tickets online and the train station is close to the airport. There’s ample space for your luggage, small, yet adequate bathrooms (think airplane lavatories), and a snack bar.
It’s not that good for scenery, as it goes way too fast for your eyes to linger on anything, and it would be impossible to get a good shot with a camera. But remember, your goal isn’t scenery, is it?

The third deal breaker is language. The common thought is that everyone speaks some English. In Paris? Probably. Everywhere else? Not so much. If you’re traveling through small villages in southwest France, their second language won’t be English, it will be Basque. We were lucky since D’Andrea has visited France often and was able to communicate well. Anita printed flash cards and knew random words and handy phrases such as, “Au Voleur!” (Stop Thief!). Barbara learned, “Oui”, and “A vos souhaits!” (Bless you). The point is, we were in many, many places where not one single word of English was spoken. So don’t rely on them. We picked up a lot of language there, and it was fun to practice our French while ordering meals as it would make waitresses giggle. If you’re extremely lucky, you have a member of your group who is Canadian and knows French. Our friend Hélène joined us in Bordeaux and the French were immediately relieved that they no longer had to guess at what we were saying.

The fourth and biggest deal breaker is money. As we mentioned above, a year of saving, asking, begging, and soliciting (we don’t condone, we just don’t judge) money seems like ample time. Remember though, that life often gets in the way. “We didn’t know braces were gonna be this year”, “That transmission never gave me problems before it went out completely”, or “Shit, I thought we had flood insurance.”
It’s also very hard to spend that much money on something that doesn’t involve your whole family. After all, you could spend the week sleeping in Cinderella’s castle with your whole family for what you’ll spend on this trip. If you have a significant other who will make you miserable for spending this money, this trip may be doomed.
Airfare is one of the biggest expenses. If someone in your group is sleeping with a pilot and can get buddy passes, that’s always a plus. Otherwise, it might be smart to subscribe to,,, and many other dot coms to compare prices. It’s also smart to become reward members of airlines such as Delta.
The route for the Tour is unveiled in October. It’s in your best interest to already have some ideas about where you want to stay and where you want to be on each stage. Typically, organizers alternate the Alps and the Pyrenees each year. We recommend researching a homebase within reasonable driving distance to as many stages as possible. In 2010, we stayed in a tiny town called Monein, about 30 minutes outside of Pau. We were about 1.5 hours from the top of the Col d’Aubisque, 2 hours from the Tourmalet, 1.5 hours from Hautacam. It was about an hour from Lourdes. We chose to use a homebase so that we didn’t have to carry all of our luggage every day. And we have LOTS of luggage.
It’s best to book this homebase or multiple hotels in October when the route is unveiled, because that’s what everyone else is doing too. European hotels are different from your standard Holiday Inn. Most hotels in the U.S. can fit four people with 2 full or queen-sized beds in a standard room. In Europe, single beds are very common as is one full/queen bed. We had to look carefully for hotels that could accommodate 3 and then 4 of us, and it wasn’t cheap. Especially during the Tour. The best part about rooming with others is sharing the expense. It makes things much more affordable. Don't even think you'll be able to secure an RV for that one week. Often, those are reserved a year in advance and they're often reserved for the entire 3 weeks. Believe us, you really don't want to navigate an RV down a mountain.
After taking the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux, we rented a car for the week to get from stage to stage. They drive on the same side of the rode as we do and the steering wheel is on the same side. The only real difference in France is the incredible amount of “road furniture” and extremely narrow streets.
Another tip is to combine some money for a kitty to be used for food and gas. Of course, when you’re in France, it’s called “le chat”. We each put $100 in le chat until it ran out, at which point, we each added $100 again. It made it much simpler to pay one check at restaurants, buy gas, groceries, pay for parking, etc.
Food is expensive. Simple meals (think jambon (ham) et fromage (cheese) sandwiches) and a beer is often more than €10, which with the exchange rate, is about 15 bucks. However, finding inexpensive wine at grocery stores is a nice surprise. Besides your accommodations, expect to spend between $50-$75 a day. Of course, you can spend less if you plan well.
If you’re going to the Tour during the last week, DO NOT miss the final stage in Paris. (But don’t drive in Paris. Turn in your rental car on Saturday and take the TGV back. A cab will get you to your hotel.) Get there the day before and get rested up. Stay somewhere close to the Champs-Élysées, even if it’s expensive. Get up early, grab a bag with a small blanket or towel to sit on, sunscreen, bottled water, a little food, camera, National flag, and go to a cafe to buy a bag of pain du chocolat and a café créme to go (as the French barista rolls her eyes at your blatant Americanness of wanting coffee in a paper cup), and stroll over to the Champs to grab a spot at the barriers. If you get there after 10 am, forget it. Plan to be there until 6 pm or later. Make sure to have some Euros in your pocket so that you can visit the bathroom down the street. It has a line out to the street and costs €2 for each visit. However, they are very clean, have multi-colored toilet paper, and each stall has a name. It’s very posh. And after pottying on the side of French mountains for a week, €2 to pee in lavish conditions is reasonable. As far as the bag of pain du chocolat, make sure there’s one for everyone in your group and then make sure you have 3 or 4 extras in case you have to bribe gendarmes to keep your spot if you go potty. Also, we DO NOT condone fake credentials, but we did have them. D’Andrea was almost stuck on the wrong side of the road when gendarmes closed it off until she flashed her Divas Tour France badge and they waved her through. You never know.
The Champs has a big screen so you can watch the race which is great. The sound of the wheels in front of you on the Champs is magical, and the feel of the wind from the peloton is welcome after baking in the sun for most of the morning with no shade. But the best part is after the race is over.
If you’re a fan of “the boys”, you’ll want to hang around for the parade. Each team lines up and, sans helmet, takes a leisurely ride down the Champs. They go very slowly, waving to fans, blowing kisses, taking pictures with their own cameras, tweeting, and giving the fans a glimpse at the satisfaction and relief of finishing the hardest sporting event in the world. We’re not a bit ashamed to say we cried.

It’s nice to be able to stay in Paris for a few days to sightsee. It is expensive to stay there, so be warned. And remember, you’ve just seen the Tour de France. The rest is just icing.


  1. we don’t condone, we just don’t judge! (ROFL) I loved this post, thank you for the insights

  2. Lol!! I thought I was the only one who did things like choose a phone carrier (Bouygues) because they sponsored a team. Then I nearly changed service when the company pulled out of their sponsorship, and now I guess I'll only rent Europcars. Great article!

    I would add, though, that if you are able, there is a bonus to going to Le Grand Départ in that the first week can be a little bit crazy with all the crashes (as we horribly witnessed so often this year). The riders are still fresh, usually in a good mood, and well... they're all there!