How to watch a stage of a Grand Tour

Five tips to make the most of your trip to the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a Espana

Ever dreamed of going to watch a stage of the Tour de France in person? Ever wanted to see just how much the pros really suffer?

Going to watch your first Grand Tour stage is a big moment for any road cycling fan. There’s nothing in the sport quite like the iconic three-week stage races around France, Italy and Spain when it comes to heritage, history and legend – and they’re also your best chance to see today’s top riders duking it out against each other.

– Ten signs you’re addicted to the Tour de France –

We’re lucky as cycling fans that we’re able to just turn up at the world’s biggest races, with no need for a ticket or an assigned place to watch from, and everybody should take advantage of cycling’s accessibility at least once.

To make sure you get the most out of your first experience, whether you’re watching the Tour, the Giro or the Vuelta, we’ve put together some helpful tips and observations – from keeping yourself fed on the mountain, to what to do with the deluge of promotional freebies that accompany any big race.

Watching a stage of a Grand Tour is a unique experience

The art of picking your spot

The first time someone watches a pro bike race, most people ask the same thing, “Was that it?”

Their surprise is not unreasonable, given that they may well have waited a couple of hours to see the riders come past, only for the action to fly by in a matter of seconds – if that.

The truth is that professional cyclists can ride their bikes very quickly indeed and, unless you’re well positioned, the race can pass you by, before you’ve had chance to say, “Is that Darwin Atapuma in the breakaway again?”

When you’re choosing a place to watch from, try to grab a spot where you can see a long stretch of the road (a high vantage point can help with this) or somewhere that the pros will be moving more slowly (like the top of a particularly nasty climb, or the outside of a long sweeping bend). In fact, there’s little better than watching a mountain stage of a Grand Tour from the roadside.

If you’re really hoping to maximise your enjoyment, try to pick a stage to watch where it’s possible to catch the race at two (or more) different points. During one stage of last year’s Vuelta a Espana, the peloton passed through the centre of Andorra la Vella three times and the finish was a ten minute cable car ride from the town, giving spectators multiple chances to catch the action. It pays off to do some advance planning to make the most of your day, then get there early to soak up the atmosphere.

Avoid standing anywhere near a public address speaker too – depending on your country of choice, they will be blaring out commercials in French, Spanish or Italian non-stop, until you’re ready to pack up and leave before the race even gets close.

“Was that it?”

Bring a packed lunch

You wouldn’t believe how little there is by way of food and drink vendors at the top of categorised climbs in a Grand Tour. Or maybe you would. Perhaps I’m a little naive, but I’d imagined that when a big race came to town some enterprising local would pop up to the top of their nearest col with a cool box full of cans of Coke, ham and cheese rolls and a few bags of kettle chips, ready to exploit the mass of spectators waiting to see the action. This is sometimes the case, but not always. And there’s no way of knowing beforehand either.

That’s why, when you’re watching a stage anywhere outside a main town, it’s advisable to bring your own grub. After all, the last thing you want when dressed in a monkey onesie and sitting on the top of the Angliru, Galibier or Zoncolan is a rumbling stomach.

Along with the obligatory baguette stuffed with cheese and cured meats, a bottle of water and a bit of fruit wouldn’t go amiss. Hell, take what you want. Stuff it in a backpack or musette and you’re ready to go. Just remember to take any rubbish back home with you – it’s bad enough with the pros dropping energy gel packets everywhere without you leaving your Mars bar wrappers behind.

Cycling is like no other sport in how close fans can get to their heroes

Enjoy the show, don’t show yourself up

As the popularity of cycling rises, it’s noticeable there are more people watching on the roadside. As a result things are getting a little ‘crowded’.

When the Tour de France came to Britain in 2014, the popularity of the race was beyond all but the most optimistic estimates. People flocked to the roads to see their heroes and things got more than a little ‘gruppo compacto’, with hundreds straining to see the action and lining the not-very-wide roads of Yorkshire.

Enjoyable the spectacle and show your support – but don’t get in the way

There have also been quite a few spectator incidents in Europe in the last few years, with Chris Froome reportedly being doused in urine unfortunately being the most memorable and most extreme. We’ve also seen over-exuberant spectators get in the way or even deliberately waylay riders, and one numpty who rode his bike into the path of the oncoming peloton.

As a spectator you’re there to appreciate what the riders do in real life. Not to try and get on TV or worse, getting in their way as you lean out into the road to get that ‘perfect’ shot with your smartphone. Show your support, by all means, but don’t get in the way.

Ride the route

Wherever possible, it’s a great idea to ride some of the day’s route, either before or after the pros come through. Most of the time, roads that are to be used in a Grand Tour get closed to motor traffic well in advance of the race going past, but on the day of the stage bikes are still allowed up until a couple of hours before.

– Twelve must-ride climbs for your bucket list –

If you’re planning to watch on one of the mountains, then you definitely have to take your bike with you. Not only is it extremely rewarding to say you’ve ridden one of the mountains that a Grand Tour has gone up on the same day as the pros, but it’s also far, far easier, quicker and more fun to get back down again if you have your own two-wheeled transport. Plus you can use the days around the Tour to tick off more cols from your bucket list.

There’s no better place to watch the race than on a climb – so why not ride there?

Behold the caravan of crap!

What’s that, a free pair of novelty sunglasses courtesy of Italy’s largest supermarket chain? What about a garish red fedora with the words Vuelta a España daubed all over it? Maybe you’d prefer a polka-dot t-shirt that only comes in two sizes, impossibly small and ridiculously large? These are just a handful of the unending deluge of promotional items distributed to spectators during a Grand Tour.

The free tat is usually given out by a fleet of vehicles (called the ‘caravane’ in the Tour de France) which passes along the route of the day’s stage an hour or so in advance of the race itself – sometimes (and very justifiably) referred to as ‘the caravan of crap’. So sought after is this tat that you’ll seen grown men rolling around on the road to grab a souvenir.

The cars, trucks and vans are sponsored by big brands hoping to boost their profits by associating themselves with cycling – so expect to see plenty of Carrefour vehicles with eerily lifelike dioramas of livestock, fish, and fruit and veg stuck all over the back, and smart cars disguised as gigantic bottles of soft drink. On one occasion there was even a truck with a couple of semi-naked pole-dancers on the back advertising some kind of shower product.

The Tour de France publicity caravane has to be seen to be believed

The scale of the caravan – seemingly hundreds of vehicles – really has to be seen to be believed, particularly at the Tour de France, and is as much a part of the experience as the race itself.

Our advice is to pick up as much of this stuff as possible. You never know when you’ll need a plastic flag with the logo of a Belgian insurance company, a packet of McCain-branded seeds* or a Vittel fridge magnet.

*This was a real freebie actually distributed at the Tour de France 2014. No, honestly.

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