Cycling / Tour de France: Police, profiteroles and the peloton: Paul Newman on the spectacle that is the world's greatest cycle race

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MORE than a million people are expected to watch the Tour de France in England. With widescale road closures, plus today's rail strike, an early start will be essential for anyone travelling by road. The roads which the Tour is using will be closed for several hours during the day, as will some approach roads.

What to look for

The whole entourage might take up to two hours to pass through a particular point.

The first vehicle to arrive is the police control car, which will be followed by the caravane publicitaire, a colourful and noisy advertising cavalcade. It comprises dozens of floats advertising commercial wares: expect to see profiteroles on wheels, truck-sized bottles and huge washing powder packets. On the Continent, samples are thrown to spectators, but this has been banned here.

Half an hour later will come a fleet of press and police cars, plus a number of police outriders. The first sign that the riders are arriving will be the sight of the helicopter which beams back to television studios the pictures taken by the cameramen on motor bikes. Just ahead of the riders will be the television cameramen and press photographers on motor bikes.

Then come the riders: most will pass by in the peloton (the main bunch) in a matter of seconds. They will be followed by team cars (carrying mechanics, other back-up personnel, spare bikes and wheels), an ambulance, the voiture balai (broom wagon) to bring back any riders who abandon the race, and more police vehicles. The race will be policed by some 60 police outriders, from both Britain and France.

The riders

The Tour is contested by 21 teams of nine riders. Entry is based on a team's world ranking.

Every rider has a specific role. The team leader's goal is overall victory. All teams have sprinters, who hope to win the bunch finishes on the flatter stages; climbers, who specialise in the mountain stages; and domestiques (servants), who will sacrifice their own chances by helping the team leader by, for example, giving up their bicycle if he has a puncture. Riders' race numbers appear on their backs and on the frames of their bikes.

Spot the leaders There are three main competitions, the leaders of which wear different jerseys: yellow (the rider with the lowest aggregate time); green (the rider leading the Points competition, which rewards the most consistent riders); and red polka dot (the leader in the King of the Mountains competition, in which riders are awarded points for their positions over the major climbs).

The course

Today: stage 4.

128 miles

THE starts and finishes offer perhaps the easiest access once you are in the towns (where additional parking is being provided), but traffic will be especially heavy on approach roads. In Brighton there will be two chances to see the riders as they go twice round a circuit.

The best action in towns elsewhere will be at the sprints (see maps). Points (which counts towards the Points competition for the green jersey) and time bonuses are awarded to the winners of the sprint sections.

However, arguably the best places to watch the Tour are out in the country, particularly on the hill climbs (see maps). Points (contributing to the King of the Mountains competition) are awarded to the leading riders over the official climbs, where breakaways might be attempted. Spectators watching the uphill sections are also likely to get a longer look at the riders; on the flatter or downhill sections the main field can pass by in a flash.

The climbs are likely to attract particularly large crowds and surrounding roads may be closed for longer than elsewhere. Ditchling Beacon (north of Brighton) is likely to draw the biggest crowds of all and access will be especially difficult.

(Maps omitted)