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Planning Your Own Tour de France Adventure
Want to plan your own trip following the la Grande Boucle? You have plenty of options.
The first, and probably easiest, option is to purchase a tour package. I booked mine through Sports Tours International, a British outfitter. (Full disclosure – STI gave me a significantly discounted rate, but my wife paid full price.) For the first-time visitor, a tour package is ideal. The hotels we stayed at were always clean and well appointed. A tour bus allowed us flexibility where we rode and how far. On most evenings, the hotel served us multiple course meals that hit the spot after a full day of riding and race-watching. There were options for those with bikes and without, so if you have a non-riding spouse, it's ideal.
But there are some caveats. First, don't expect any handholding on one of these trips. If you don't feel comfortable changing flats or navigating the roads of a foreign country on your own, this is probably not the tour for you. Also, our tour guide was a terrific guy, but didn't speak a lot of French and wasn't too familiar with the history or topography of the areas we rode. Luckily, we were never in a situation where we couldn't communicate with a local – either one of the group knew some French or the person we were speaking to knew English.
Some tour operators, the biggest one being Trek Travel, offer additional perks – more guides, team access, more luxurious hotels, etc. – but you're going to pay a premium for them, and they can quickly add up.
If you have a desire for more control of your itinerary, you could always plan your own trip, book your own hotels, find your own meals and plot your own rides. This is a great option for experienced folks who only want to follow the Tour for a day or two, or might not want to share space with strangers for a week or more.
During one of the stages, I ran into a couple from Ohio, who had rented a RV for a week. After talking to them for about an hour and doing some additional research, this may be the route we choose the next time we follow le Tour.
You should be able to find a six-person camper van for between €150 and €270 a day, depending on options. A quick google search should give you some nice options for rentals. If you watch the Tour coverage on televeision, you know RVs are a very popular way to follow the race, so it's best to book early or, better yet, fly into a neighboring country and drive into France. The camper van will allow you to move from stage to stage with ease and allow you more flexibility when riding. You can also save a ton of cash by buying groceries and utilizing the RV's stove and microwave rather than eating in restaurants two or three times a day.
However, while modern French highways are nice and wide, some villages' roads were designed with pedestrians and horse-drawn carts in mind, not cars. The tighter quarters makes navigating a large RV through the twists and turns a bit of a challenge for American drivers. You should also be sure you can survive living in tight quarters with your friends for days, if not weeks, at a time. Following the Tour de France may be the trip of a lifetime, but is it worth losing lifelong friends over.
The best time to start planning your trip is in October, when the next year's route is announced. Hotel rooms tend to fill up quick, so it's best to make reservations early. If you're planning to ride the route, decide how difficult you want to make it on yourself. If you want to tackle the legendary climbs, the Tour typically spends three to four days each in the Alps or the Pyrenees. Just be sure to train leading up to the trip, otherwise you're setting yourself up for hours upon hours of pain – I know this from experience.
There's a lot of hoopla and excitement in the hour or so before the riders pedal out of a departure city; you should check it out at least once during your trip. Spots near the finish line fill up quickly, so get there early or, better yet, find another spot a kilometer or two down the road when the sprinters' teams are winding up for their big push to the line. It's just as excited and not quite as packed.
On flat stages, the peleton can pass in seconds, so if you're trying to get photos, aim for hillier stages, where the riders are spread out more. That said, steer clear of the big mountain finishes, such as Col d'Tourmalet or Mont Ventoux; officials will shut down the roads to vehicle traffic days before the stage and often won't allow bike traffic up a day before. Even with those restrictions in place, more than one million fans jammed Alp d'Huez during this year's stage finish.
If you do attend a mountaintop finish, don't be one of those guys that runs next to the riders shouting. Everyone hates those guys.
Most importantly, have fun and get to know the people around you. The Tour de France is perhaps the greatest bike race in the world -- the fans are understandably passionate and love to share that love with fans from other countries. Just don't rub it in when a foreign rider is wearing the yellow leader's jersey. It's a bit of a sore spot.