Seeing the TDF in person

Discussion in 'Road Cycling' started by Mike Jacoubowsky, Jul 3, 2004.

  1. [This is a repost of a usenet post of mine from maybe 6 months ago. As the
    TDF is now upon us, and some may be wondering how best to view it, this
    might be a good time to revisit it.

    There's more info on seeing the TDF in person on our website, specifically
    via the page.

    There's also specific info regarding the final stage at

    Hope this is helpful to somebody out there- --Mike--]


    Someone questioned why you'd want to see the TDF in person-

    "You won't get very much out of watching a road race in person, unless you
    are on a motorcycle or car following the race. Unless it's a time trial, you
    will stand for many hours to get a few seconds or minutes of racing.

    If you want to ride your bicycle in France, then it's best to avoid the Tour
    de France, as all the roads are blocked off for hours prior to the race."

    To which I replied-

    I'll have to disagree; there's very little that compares to the thrill of
    being on a steep mountain climb and watching the shattered peloton come
    through. You are so close to the action that you become almost a part of it
    (especially if you're flinging a handbag around), and the drama unfolds in
    front of you over a significant period of time, not fleeting seconds.

    True, you've got to get to your place fairly early, as they'll close the
    roads to bikes about three hours ahead of the race, but the cars have been
    shut out earlier than that, so you've got the mountain all to yourself
    (along with a few hundred thousand people, many of them cheering you on as
    you climb up the col). It's an experience like no other, a huge party that
    you have been invited to. There will be the crazy Dutch corner (easily
    identified by all the orange), the Telekom Pigs (who really don't put
    Germans in the best-possible light), the Devil himself (the guy you've seen
    in all the photos, and yes, he enjoys having his picture taken with you!),
    and a steady stream of overweight guys hauling big beer coolers miles up the

    Perhaps you'll ride to the top of the pass, and then head back down to a
    spot you scouted on the way up... but not before having your picture taken
    at the very top. You descend maybe a couple of kilometers, looking for that
    spot where, on the way up, you were thinking "Geez, this is a nasty
    stretch!" because that's where the attack might come.

    You look at your watch and note that it's about 2.5 hours before they come
    through; quite a long time! But it passes quickly, as you trade stories
    with others you meet, new friends brought to the same place as if they were
    called there by some mysterious power. You try to hear what's happening on
    somebody's radio (or, if you were really smart, you brought your own... or
    perhaps even an LCD TV!). If you've got a cell phone and don't mind the
    cost, you call home (if that's in the US) and ask your wife if she could
    turn on OLN and let you know what's happening (never mind that it's 6am in

    Before long (two hours prior to the riders) the first competition begins...
    the Caravan arrives, and everybody's acting like a little kid, trying to
    score whatever trinkets & trash they throw from the vehicles. You could
    spend days studying the Caravan and never figure out how they decide who
    they're going to throw to (but eventually you start analyzing trajectories
    and learn where stuff is likely to land). If you're smart, you'll pay
    attention to the Aquarel vehicles; they pass out bottled water, which is a
    very valuable commodity when you're miles from nowhere!

    The Caravan takes about 30 minutes to completely pass through; an amazing
    assortment of vehicles, many of which you simply don't believe could travel
    up & down the passes safely. It's incredibly goofy and leaves even the most
    jaded with a strangely giddy feeling. But you've still got an hour and a
    half to go, and it seems like the gendarmes have temporarily given up on
    stopping people from riding up the hill (if you wanted to move, this is the
    time). An occasional car goes flying through, perhaps transporting a
    photographer or dignitary or race official to some key spot further down the
    course. The tension is building noticeably; people are talking about
    whatever strategy has unfolded so far, and wondering who's going to be in
    the lead by the time they get to your spot on the course.

    By this time your neck is pretty fried if you haven't put on sunscreen, and
    your feet a bit tired if you're trying to walk around in racing shoes
    (definitely consider bringing along some of those roll- up shoe/sock things
    with the rubberized soles and mesh tops). But you're hanging tough, along
    with everyone else, and something is telling you that, at this moment,
    there's no place on earth better to be than right where you are right now.

    Half an hour to go and the gendarmes are aggressively keeping people off the
    road. Time to park your butt so nobody takes your place! And then, with
    the riders maybe 20 minutes away, you see the first helicopters, way down
    the valley. The first ones you see are up high; they're used to relay the
    television signals. But shortly you spot the lower helicopters, the ones
    that closely follow the riders, and you can see them moving up the valley,
    moving towards you. The air becomes strangely chilled for a short period of
    time as you get goose-bumps in anticipation.

    Ten minutes away and, for the first time, you hear the helicopters. As one
    closes in on you, it seems to almost slow down and hover, as if the riders
    have stopped just short of you. Soon, a car comes blasting through at very
    high speed, with a bull-horn blasting out in indecipherable French (as only
    a bull-horn can do) that the riders are just two minutes behind! But what
    riders? No way can you make out what they're saying; it's the worst
    Jack-in-the-box speaking imaginable. But you catch bits and pieces of
    conversations around you, and put together that a Frenchman's off the front
    by a minute or two but is losing ground fast, and an attack has just flown
    off the front of what's left of the pack, which is quickly disintegrating.

    And then the lead motorcycles, two of them, flying fast and close to the
    edges of the road in an attempt to move you back and make room for the
    riders. And they do come very, very close. They have their prescribed
    line, and I don't know what would happen if somebody didn't move out of the
    way fast enough.

    Now they're upon you. Lead motorcycle (with photographer), and then the
    stage leader, seeming to both fly and struggle at the same time (and in your
    mind you could swear that each pedal stroke is slower than the one before).
    This guy's not going to make it; the attacks behind are going to swallow him
    up shortly. He's followed closely by his team car, with the DS (team
    director) leaning out the window yelling encouragement (or obscenities, if
    it's Saiz).

    A minute or two of silence follows, and you're briefly thinking "Is that
    it?" You know it's not, but you're thinking it anyway. There were just a
    couple of cars, maybe four motorcycles. But then you notice the air around
    you is moving and you look up and there's a helicopter hovering right over
    the top of you, and noise levels are increasing at an astronomical rate as a
    flotilla of cars and motorcycles rush past and you're suddenly in the middle
    of a traveling maelstrom of activity. Don't blink now, things are
    happening fast! Where are they? Motorcycles, cars, helicopters, more
    motorcycles, all making quite the racket, and now the crowd is yelling,
    cheering wildly, the noise literally rolling up the hill towards you. You
    look down the road and notice where people are starting to yell; obviously
    the riders are within their sight! Camera, is the camera ready?

    At this point you have to make a decision (one you should have made some
    time ago, but is now up for grabs). Do you watch the events unfold, get
    caught up in the moment and cheer your heroes on... or do you take photos?
    It's an unfortunate fact that you really can't do both... to take decent
    photos requires that you become almost detached from what's going on. Timing
    is everything! Those who are there to stand and cheer will be able to
    replay the event in their mind, over and over. The photographer, if he/she
    doesn't get the shot, loses everything. There's no half-way.

    Zoom in on the motorcycles. Ignore those used for crowd control; the ones
    to watch for are those with photographers and race officials, as they'll be
    in the thick of the action. They'll always have a passenger, and often a
    tall antenna on the back. Right behind them, or maybe to the side, will be
    the action, the racers who are doing their best to blow things apart. Your
    heroes. Virenque (if it's not the final hill). Heras. Lance. Ullrich.
    Tyler. Vino. Guys who are looking very serious, like this is all-business
    and they're at 110% and refuse, absolutely refuse to crack. Their speed is
    unbelievable for such a steep grade; these guys are simply not mortal. They
    turn the throttle and see if they can push it to 11...and hold it there for
    as long as it takes.

    And then they're past. The helicopters, the motorcycles, the cars, the
    riders... gone on up the hill. Maybe 15 seconds later you get somebody who
    wasn't able to keep up, but still doing pretty good, in no apparent danger
    of falling apart. Whatever discouragement comes from falling off the back
    is at least partly offset by the tremendous amount of attention that single
    person is getting from the crowds! And, when you talk with them later, they
    tell you they do hear you, and it does keep them going.

    Another minute or two and you get a bit larger group, riders who are working
    really hard, trying not to lose too much time in the GC (overall time).
    There's a bit of panic on some of their faces; nobody looks comfortable.
    Nobody in this group is going to win the stage, but there still might be
    opportunities for a couple of them to move up in the GC.

    Now you start getting the stragglers; people who have blown up and are
    steadily losing time. These guys are going visibly slower than those that
    came before, and they look really, really awful. Mortal. Like you & me
    when we're totally bonked and have three miles left on a nasty climb and
    can't imagine how we'll make it over the top. No pedals turned in anger,
    just anguish!

    By this time things have really thinned out and maybe twenty minutes (or
    more) have passed since the lead rider. You start counting in your mind how
    many have gone by; it just doesn't seem like all that many. Did everyone
    drop out? But you wait a bit more and here it comes... maybe 80 guys all
    bunched together, riding almost casually up the hill. Their work was done
    long ago, and none of them are in contention for anything but perhaps
    sprinter's points... their only fear is the dreaded time-cut. But as long
    as a large number ride together, they figure they'll all be allowed to stay
    in the race, even if they miss the time-cut, because the organizers aren't
    going to disqualify half the field!

    And, finally, the broom wagon comes along, giving far too much attention to
    the poor guy in front of it, the last rider on the course. This guy
    probably doesn't have a chance of making the time cut, but suffers on.
    Everybody watching can relate to him, and sometimes the identity surprises
    you (last year on the Tourmalet it was Axel Merckx).

    That's what you get watching the TDF in person.

    --Mike-- Chain Reaction Bicycles