Gearing up for a spectacle

The Tour is still the best way to get to the heart of French life, says Simon O'Hagan

Every year somebody or other tells you that the Tour de France is losing its grip on the public imagination - that the whole travelling circus is now too big and too slick, that you can no longer get close to the riders, that cycling simply doesn't mean as much to the French as it used to.

Every year somebody or other tells you that the Tour de France is losing its grip on the public imagination - that the whole travelling circus is now too big and too slick, that you can no longer get close to the riders, that cycling simply doesn't mean as much to the French as it used to.

To an extent the nostalgists are right. They always are. Consider, however, the scenes that unfolded one sun-drenched day last July when the 2004 Tour reached Alpe d'Huez, and an individual time-trial took place up the race's most celebrated Alpine climb. The numbers that thronged the mountain were estimated at a million. A million! That's the old Wembley multiplied by more than 10 - a crowd of such stupendous proportions that the high pastures virtually disappeared from view. The riders complained that the walls of humanity that pressed in on them made it almost impossible to negotiate a path safely.

Any recommendation for viewing the Tour - still an unbeatable way of discovering the heart of French life - has therefore to begin in the mountains. And the great thing about the 2005 race is that there are mountain possibilities not just in the Alps and the Pyrenees but also in the Vosges, near France's border with Germany, and in the Massif Central. What this year's race does not offer is any real scope for catching it on a day-trip across the Channel. Paris - where, as tradition demands, the race ends - is as close as it gets.

The charming Ile de Noirmoutier off the north Vendée coast plays host on day one of the race on Saturday 2 July. Anywhere the Tour passes through is en fête, but opening weekends have a flavour all their own. Oysters and the Atlantic air will certainly contribute to this one. It's a clockwise year, and the Tour then cuts a swathe across the Loire, calling in at two historic locations in Tours and Blois. The race continues east, and bargain-hunters should note the visit to Troyes in the Champagne region, otherwise known as the factory outlet capital of France. That stage finishes in Nancy, and soon after, the Tour heads into Germany on one of its regular cross-border excursions.

The stage on Sunday 10 July, is one of the most appealing of the whole Tour. This is when it enters the Vosges mountains of Alsace, with the riders scaling no fewer than six peaks on the 170km from Gérardmer to Mulhouse. Of these, the showpiece climbs go up Le Grand Ballon (1,338 metres) and the Ballon d'Alsace (1,171 metres), the latter the site of a powerful piece of Joan of Arc statuary. Both spots represent fantastic spectating opportunities in a region generally overlooked by British visitors - one explanation for which may be its distinctly German feel. But the Alsace Wine Route, the timber-framed glory that is Colmar, and the historic riches of Strasbourg are not to be missed.

Purists, meanwhile, will be waiting for the next phase - in the Alps. Indeed, they will probably have parked their camper vans on the slopes leading up to Courchevel (the finish of stage 10 on Tuesday 12 July, the start of the stage the next day) a good two weeks in advance. Typically, they will be Dutch or Belgian - their vans equipped with satellite TV so that the progress of the approaching race can be followed - and they will be boisterously good-humoured. British visitors need not feel intimidated.

Altogether the Tour spends three days in the Alps - the last of them Bastille Day - before battle recommences in Miramas, an un-touristy, industrial corner of Provence roughly halfway between Avignon and Marseilles. Worth a detour if you're holidaying in or around Peter Mayle country, though the flattish 162km-stage from Miramas to Montpellier on Friday 15 July is likely to be one of the hottest of the Tour. The next day the riders continue their journey west towards the Pyrenees on a stage that starts in the volcanic basalt town of Agde and takes in a big climb - the Port de Pailhères - just before the finish at Ax Trois Domaines.

This challenge heralds the start of the Pyrenees proper, and a stage from Lézat-sur-Lèze to Saint-Lary Soulan that briefly diverts into Spain. From a spectating point of view, the Pyrenees provide an excellent, less crowded alternative to the Alps.

We're now into the final week, with the route turning back on itself and heading east again. Pau, which hosts the finish of the stage on Tuesday 19 July and the start of the stage the following day, is a lovely old town. Stage 18 - from Albi to Mende on Thursday 21 July - can be combined with a visit to the Millau Viaduct (see pages VIII and IX of this section), the recently opened architectural wonder that spans the Tarn gorge. The next day showcases the volcanic region of the Massif Central and a finish at Le Puy-en-Velay, with the penultimate day comprising an individual time-trial in and around Saint-Etienne. Suburban Paris will enjoy its moment in the spotlight on the final day, when the stage begins on the south-eastern edge of the city at Corbeil-Essonnes before following a circuitous 55km to the Champs-Elysées.

Solid, medium-sized towns are in many ways what make the Tour, and there is no shortage of them in 2005. The thrill of a mountain stage is undeniable, yet for the outsider what could offer a more authentically French experience than standing in the main square in Montargis, or Mourenx, or Issoire as the riders gather for the off or are welcomed in at the end of a day's racing?

Another reason for believing that the 2005 Tour might offer comfort for traditionalists is the possibility - admittedly a slim one - that a Frenchman will win it. Lance Armstrong, with six successive victories under his belt and still the man to beat, would almost certainly have to give the the race a miss, but that is something he has indicated he might well do. In Tour terms he has achieved everything there is to achieve. A new generation of aspirants would come to the fore, of whom France's Thomas Voeckler, long-time leader in the 2004 race, is one.

Then again, does it really matter who wins the Tour? It's the event that counts. And the beauty of it is, anyone can be a part of it.

More details at www.letour.fr

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