Every four years, I watch the Olympics, and every four years, I watch sports such as diving, swimming, and gymnastics, and question my life decisions.
The Tour de France is a monster, a rolling beast that steamrolls its way across France every July, watched by millions. A race at this sort of grand scale brings the logistical demands of a small army, much of it dedicated to presenting the race to a rapt audience.
That audience is anywhere in the world. It might be standing by a roadside in the French Alps, on the Champs Elysees, or in a field in Flanders. It might be in a cycle cafe in London, Amsterdam, San Sebastian or Milan.
It might be on a mobile phone screen in Sydney or tucked up on the couch in Melbourne with a glass of wine and a plate of region-themed late-night snacks.
There are many ways to watch the Tour de France. But which are the best?
Well, there’s really nothing quite like watching it live. If you’re able to be in France while the race is on, seeing it up close will give you a whole new understanding of the scale, intensity and sheer speed of the race.
This is not without its logistical challenges. Even for spectators, different stages require different tactics. The logistics (and atmosphere) of a mountain stage are completely different to the final day on the Champs Elysees. Preparation is everything.
For the closest possible vantage point, I’d pick the mountains every time. You will be within arm’s reach of the riders (careful now), and they’ll be going slowly enough to pick out your favourites easily. If you choose a hard enough climb, the peloton will be cracked into pieces – hard for the sprinters but it means you’ll be watching the race for 20 minutes or more.
The roads close early on the day of the race, so unless you’re planning to camp on the side of the mountain (or rent a campervan like thousands of fans who follow the race every year) you’ll need to find a way to get to the best vantage points.
I’ll give you a tip: the roads don’t close to bicycles, which is why you’ll see so many spectators running along in cycling kit, with their own machines leaning by the side of the road. Ideally, you’ll befriend someone with a campervan and a TV showing the race.
Load up on local delicacies, make sure to remember enough wine and plenty of water, and ride up to your desired vantage point on the morning of the race. You can spend the day chatting to tourists from all over the world, enjoying the sunshine, snacking away, and then watch the race caravan speed through in all its bonkers glory.
The race caravan, if you don’t know, is a convoy of sponsors’ vehicles, decorated like parade floats, tossing out branded tat like confetti. But this parade charges through at high speed, and these packets of gummy candy, betting shop keyrings and polka-dot caps come at you like missiles.
By the time the race itself arrives, you’ll already have had a great day out.
Watching the final stage in Paris is another option. The pageantry and sheer spectacle are outrageous: something like a million people cram up against the barriers to see the final frenetic laps of each Tour.
It isn’t necessarily easy though, you’ll need to get there six or seven hours early if you want a spot on the front row. Bring a folding chair and guard your territory jealously, but with a smile and a bottle of Champagne. A lack of public toilets means beer is not the smart choice.
In these modern times of smartphones and streaming video, it’s easier than ever to watch the race from the side of the road. But if you’re overseas, make sure you’re not paying roaming charges – pick up a local prepaid SIM card and make sure you’ve got plenty of data.
Sadly, for most Aussie fans, being roadside in France will be a distant dream or a fond memory. Luckily, local coverage of the Tour has never been better.
Obviously, the best place to start is right here on The Roar, with our live blogs, previews and post-stage analysis.
For TV coverage, SBS will be doing its usual sterling job of televising every stage live. If you’re not near a TV, SBS also has a live video stream, which is a good alternative.
On mobile devices, there’s the excellent Tour Tracker app, with its live text updates, race news, stage details and results.
The real pro fans use social media while they watch, with two or three screens going at once. A bit of light banter is a perfect way to get through the uneventful moments, and popular Twitter hashtags such as #sherliggettisms, #toursnacks, #tasteletour are always a good way to get involved.
There are some seriously funny people out there watching cycling, and some of them even know what they’re talking about.
Keep up the banter online, have a mate around to watch with (a ‘buddy system’ approach will help with the sleepy eyes), keep your #toursnacks intake steady and make sure you’re eating something vaguely French.
Always drink appropriately, and by that I mean what is regionally appropriate. Red wine and the cobbles of Flanders? Non. Trappist beer in the Pyrenees? Get out. You’ll never win #toursnacks kudos doing that.
Of course, the elephant in the room for Antipodean fans is sleep. Sleep is a problem. I’m not talking about being tired at work, that’s easily solved with buckets of espresso and a couple of toothpicks under the eyes. No, sleep has the potential to rob you of the crucial moments of the race.
It’s easy to fall asleep watching a line of Team Sky robots methodically chasing a break comprising Thomas Voeckler, a journeyman Dutch rouleur (the role formerly filled by Johnny Hoogerland) and several anonymous Frenchmen from local Pro Continental outfits filling in their TV time quota. But you just know that the second your traitor eyes slide shut, Peter Sagan will launch an exhilarating but doomed attack that will be caught on the line while you snooze.
To avoid this, I have a few tactics.
It’s important to get in the right training. Riders can’t expect to just rock up at the Tour in top form, and neither should spectators. Reset your body clock gradually in the lead-up, by watching cycling, of course.
Avoid caffeine while watching, it just ruins your chances of dropping quickly once the action finishes, and the problem compounds. It’s a long race, you need to save some energy for the final week in the mountains.
Squeeze in an hour or two of ‘disco nap’ after dinner, but before the telecast starts.
Pick your stages. Nobody can go hard every night for three weeks, even with rest days every Monday night. Big shake-ups are unlikely on flatter stages, but anything with a HC climb to finish is probably going to be worth a few drool spots on your desk the next day.
If there isn’t much happening, watch the stage, but set a safety alarm to go off with 15 kilometres to go. Estimate this using an average speed of 45km/h and the distance remaining in the day – you might be slightly out but definitely not by enough to miss the finish.
If you’re really suffering, there’s no shame (OK, not much shame) in piking early on the boring-looking stages, as long as you record it and watch it in the morning before you check the news.
The Tour de France can become an endurance test for everyone involved, but if you’re clever about it, watching is actually pretty simple.