How time flies. It’s not yet the end of February and for many of you, it’s time to begin thinking about planning your trip to the 2016 Tour de France. That’s right in only 135 days until the Grand Depart at Mont Saint Michel. Millions of travelers and cycling fanatics will be descending on the Tour route like a mob looking for Beaujolais at the end of November. In a later post, I will look at the Tour route in a little more detail and drop some tips to help those of you who will be France-bound this summer. For now though, I’ll reminisce about how I went about my planning a few years ago.
Life is about compromise. Travel, let alone to France and the Tour de France, is no different. As I discover each stage for Explore le Tour, it becomes abundantly obvious that there is enough to see and do in France to last several lifetimes of exploration. No surprise there, right? Meanwhile, the Tour de France is 21 epic stages over and 3,000+ kilometers. So when planning a trip to the Tour, there are two competing priorities like lady justice weighing her options: the French experience or Le Tour? Choices needed to be made. Explore le Tour tries to marry these two options as seamlessly as possible because it is absolutely possible to have both with enough pre-planning.
Inevitably, the perfectionist planner in each of us won’t be able to have it all. That is why your Tour trip will revolve around your overall goals and it’s time to begin asking yourself this question now! This is exactly what I did when planning my trip to the Tour in 2012. At that point, I had a set of overall goals: 1) experience the Tour, 2) see Paris, and 3) spend time on the Riviera with an expat college friend. Just to stay sane, I absolutely needed to define two essential aspects to narrow down the possibilities given the limiting factors of time and money. First, what did I want out of my trip aside from seeing the Tour? Second, which stages should I see and which would I be forced to skip? I had preconceived notions about the latter and definite opinions about the former. The only question was what would give.
As mentioned in my bio, I started watching the Tour de France during my college summers. At that time, I was doing a lot of photo scanning, so the Tour was something that was enough to numb my mind from the monotonous process of “place, scan, save, remove, repeat” literally a thousand times over. Over time, I actually started to become enthralled with the sport, competitiveness, and views. Fast forward a few years and after several years of watching, I was dead-set on one day attending the Tour in person. But how? From California, it seemed like a massive undertaking for a twenty-something just entering the working world.
Before jumping right in, I did what any money-respecting individual would do. I conducted a reconnaissance trip to my local pro-Tour, the Amgen Tour of California. A friend and I travelled to northern California to take in three stages of the 2008 AToC before heading back to San Diego for the final stage. It was my goal to experience each type of stage (flat, mountain, time trial, etc.) as well as experience the atmospheres at both a start and finish. It was my feeling that a mid-stage flat portion would ultimately not be the best place to watch a race, given that one’s experience lasts all of a few seconds or minutes, depending on the break. The trip managed to be overwhelmingly successful. From my list, I ticked off a time trial (Stage 1: Sacramento), a stage finish (Stage 2: Santa Rosa in the rain and Stage 8: Escondido), a mid-mountain (Stage 3: Bonnie Doon in the rain), and a stage start (Stage 8: Rancho Bernardo).
While mostly wet, the experience was fantastic, accelerating my drive to attend the Tour de France in person. With a few years to scrimp and save, the timing was right in 2012. Now it was time to put into practice what I learned on the AToC route. As millions have found out, the Tour de France is not the easiest to follow in person. Well worth-while, but with so many kilometers covered and crowds along the way, there are infinite decisions to make, all in advance. The planning is only compounded by the desire to also see all that France and its neighbors have to offer. This was certainly the challenge for me in 2012 and what Explore le Tour was founded to solve.
In the end, I had eighteen days in France. Given my goals and the timing and placement of that year’s route, I only managed to see two stages of the Tour (Stages 20 and 21). I decided to get my time’s worth at the penultimate stage time trial, which I was able to combine with a wonderful tour of the incomparable Chartres Cathedral. For the final stage in Paris, I woke up early and went for a morning run down the Champs Elysees before it closed to the public and found a great spot opposite Norwegian Corner, right where the peloton makes the turn onto the Rue de Rivoli. From my reconnaissance trip in California, I learned that the riders would be speeding by faster than I imagined just by watching on television. The corner and slight uphill from the Louvre tunnel slowed the peloton just enough. It’s this kind of strategic planning that is needed when traveling to see the Tour. The same can be true of which stages to see and even then, where to stand along the 100+ kilometer route that day. On a flat stage, perhaps the finish will be worth it from a sprint standpoint (if you can even get close enough to watch it), but maybe the finish city doesn’t have much that you’re interested in. Invariably, there will always be a spot along the route that combines the best of both worlds. The trick is finding out where. That’s why I founded Explore le Tour and why the Tour de France is the ideal travel event.
For the rest of my 2012 trip, I drove much of that year’s Tour route minus the crowds yet with all of the beauty. While driving south from Paris to Marseilles, I climbed legends like the Galibier and Telegraph, saw Chamonix, and lived the Cote d’Azur life like a pro. I wouldn’t have done anything differently and that’s all that matters. So as you explore the stages and sites of the 2016 Tour de France, only you can determine what is a priority and what must get left by the way-side. Hopefully Explore le Tour can help make that decision. Regardless, I if you’re headed to the Tour, you’re bound to have a trip of a lifetime.