Being a spectator at a bike race in Europe
or, "How to bore your friends faster than a bunch sprint"
Let me make sure I’m not wasting your time -- Can you answer “Yes” to at least 2 of these questions?
I know what the Tour de France is
I miss Paul Sherwen, especially in July
I think I’d like to be on the Champs Elysees someday for the final stage
I own a cowbell and know what to say when I’m ringing it
If none of these trigger any recognition in your brain, then you can probably move on to the next article.
If you find yourself nodding in agreement, then let’s talk.
You tune in every July, to watch the Tour de France. Sure, it might be the only pro cycling race you watch all year, and you might not recognize any of the names in the peloton.
But that scenery.....OH, that scenery!!
Here’s the thing: you can go watch some (or all) of the Tour de France in person. Or the Giro d’Italia. Or the Paris-Roubaix. Or the Vuelta a Espana. Or.....
It can be just a single day on your vacation, which happens to coincide with the route of a race, or it might be a whole trip that you plan, specifically for the purpose of following the race.
The CBB* and I have watched many pro cycling races in person, from the Colorado Classic in our home state, to tout le Tour de France in 2013 (the 100th edition). So we’ve learned a few things, and are happy to share that knowledge.
There can be so much more to it than this, but here are some of the key steps:
Planning which stage to see
Unless you’re watching a one-day classics race (hello, Paris-Roubaix, Omloop-het-Nieuwsblad, Milan-San Remo...), or are following an entire Grand Tour, you’ll want to decide which stage is most interesting to you.
Pro: Get to see the riders as they move more slowly -- and oh, those suffer faces!
Con: Often a little harder to get to a good spot without some pre-planning
Pro: Get to see every rider, one at a time
Con: Not necessarily as interesting to watch, as a spectator
Pro: Get to see the peloton come past you several times
Con: Can get confusing sometimes, keeping track of whether you’ve just seen the leaders of the lantern rouge go by
Pro: Not usually much competition for viewing space
Con: This is where your friends are right -- they do pretty much “whoosh by”
In general, I really prefer a mountain stage -- but it also tends to cause me the most anxiety, as I fret over when the roads will close, and whether we’ll get headed up the hill before then. That’s probably just me, though. You’ll be fine.
Time trials are a good place to take advantage of a hospitality package, as you’re there for the duration of the race.
Deciding which vantage point to aim for
This has perhaps been where we’ve learned the most. We’ve done starts, finishes, climbs, feed zones, and random areas out in the middle of nowhere.
In general, I find a start to be preferable to a finish, in terms of being able to get photos and/or autographs of the riders.
At the start, they’re hanging out at the team bus, warming up, grabbing a coffee, and are usually easier to reach, and more willing to take time out.
At the finish, you get that excitement of the final seconds of the day’s efforts, but the riders are tired, and often being whisked back to the hotel, or in interviews.
Being on a steep climb is a great vantage point, but you do have to pay attention to the logistics of getting there. If there’s only one good way up to the summit (which is often the case, as mountains aren’t known for having lots of sideroads), then you’ll need to find out when they’re closing the roads, and plan to be on your way up there well before then.
Figuring out the timing
This is generally easier than you’d think, as long as you have access to the start time, and a map.
Given that the men’s pro teams seem to average about 40-42 km/hr for most stages, you can use that to estimate when the peloton should come past your spot.
If you can get your hands on a copy of the race’s official timetable for that day, you can pinpoint it even more (but pay attention to what average speed they’re using for their calculations -- the TdF seems to still think that a 36 kmh average is likely).
So, if you’re sitting at about kilometer 80, and they started at 11 am, then they should be coming at you somewhere in the 1 pm range.
You’re gonna want to bring some stuff with you.
Aside from the obvious (sunscreen, water), here are a few things we’ve found helpful:
Camp chairs (if you’re in a position to have them with you). Tiny packable camp chairs can be great if you had room in your luggage for them. Barring that, at least have a picnic blanket so that you’re not sitting on dirt or wet grass.
Power for your phone or tablet. Backup batteries, yes. But we also bring along a small GoalZero solar panel, so that if we have sunshine, we can power things right off the sun’s rays.
Beverages of your choice. You’re probably gonna be there a while.
Lunch and snacks. You’re probably gonna be there for a while.
A few squares of TP. Just in case. You’re gonna be there for a while. And you may or may not be near a place with facilities.
A cowbell. Maybe that’s just me.
Sidewalk chalk, maybe. If you’re at home, a bucket with a mixture of cornstarch and water makes a great (nonpermanent) paint with which to put your favorite rider’s name on the road.
Not being bored
The thing is, there IS a lot of time spent just waiting for them to come whoosh by.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be oblivious to what’s going on in the race.
If you’ve got a cell connection (and a data plan), you can follow along with Tour Tracker (for most races) or the CyclingNews text feed. I think it's well worth springing for the paltry price of an annual subscription to the Tour Tracker app -- you get SO much good data about the race, their location, the leaders, etc. And when people around you find out that you have info on the race, you may find yourself with new friends.
Bring a deck of cards, or a game. If there are lots of other fans around, strike up a conversation. If you’ve got a bike with you, have a go at tackling that climb (people will totally cheer you on, which is kindof great).
And if you’re at one of the larger pro races in Europe, there will probably be a publicity caravan that precedes the actual race by about an hour.
Enjoy the loud music, see the vehicles outfitted with fiberglass sausage baskets and gummy bear packets, and try to catch some of the schwag they throw out to spectators.
But take care -- people will Take. You. Out. for the chance to grab that free pen that landed at your feet.
Watching a bike race in person is an experience like no other. With some planning, it can turn into memories that you’ll cherish forever and bore your friends with frequently.
Got your eye on a race? I'm happy to help you plan your trip!
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*CBB = Cute Blonde Boy -- my blogname for my hubby