Grand tour: it's a 3,000km party on wheels

Watching the world's greatest cycle race is a fine way to see France, says Simon O'Hagan
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The Independent Travel

As we report above, it's getting the tickets that can be the hard part about taking a holiday based round a big sports event. But there's one sporting spectacle where tickets aren't a problem at all. Indeed, the whole thing is not only free, it offers high drama, beautiful scenery, and an unbeatable entrée into the local way of life.

I refer of course to the greatest cycle race on earth, the Tour de France. The 2005 Tour, the 92nd since it was first held in 1903, begins next Saturday, and for three weeks will present fantastic viewing opportunities along each of its 3,607 kilometres (2,241 miles). You can choose from the Atlantic coast to the Loire to the Champagne region to Alsace to the Alps to the Midi to the Pyrenees to the Massif Central and to Paris itself, where, as tradition demands, the race reaches its climax on Sunday 24 July. There's even an excursion into Germany.

For the towns that host stages, the Tour is an excuse to lay on a party, and the casual visitor will find a lot to enjoy beyond the excitement of seeing the legendary Lance Armstrong – competing in his last Tour – do battle with some 200 other cyclists. A flourishing of concerts, exhibitions, food festivals, and flea markets accompanies the Tour.

To some extent these attractions are laid on to help make up for the fact that you may only catch a brief glimpse of the cycling itself, especially if you find yourself waiting by the side of the road on a flat stretch in the middle of nowhere. Even then, the publicity caravan that precedes the riders – comprising a rather bizarre collection of customised vehicles from which free gifts are thrown to the crowd – provides an hour's worth of guaranteed entertainment.

The mountain stages are where the Tour really comes into its own. They can attract tens of thousands of spectators, many of whom will have pitched their tent, or parked their camper van, days in advance. For these enthusiasts the effort is worth it for the extended action on offer, as the strung-out field battles its way up the slopes at relatively low speeds.

For the merely curious, I would recommend a visit to one of the smaller host towns on the morning of the départ. From Challans to Troyes, and Pau to Albi, they will be en fête, and a more authentically French experience would be hard to find.

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