I became a Tour de France addict by accident. Eight years ago I was flicking through channels and stumbled across the Tour highlights show. It was a strange new world full of jargon: pelotons, yellow jerseys, sprints, breakaways… what was going on?
But after much Googling and a copy of ‘Tour de France for Dummies’ I was obsessed. The Tour is a compelling event – three exciting weeks of speed, suffering, crashes, gigantic mountains, Lycra-clad blokes with skinny arms and of course, stunning French countryside.
Every year my husband and I would watch the final stage on the Champs-Élysées from the couch and vow to go watch in person next time. After all, it is only an hour on the plane from Edinburgh, and there are two Canvas campsites close to Paris.
“We’d be crazy not to!” I’d say.
Then we’d promptly forget all about it, until we had the very same conversation the following year.
I finally took action after the 2011 tour, when my fellow Australian Cadel Evans took overall victory and Mark Cavendish won the green sprinter’s jersey. I wanted to be in that cheering crowd! I booked flights as soon as they came on sale.
As luck would have it, 2012 turned out to be an incredible year for Britain. Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey on Day 7 and held it all the way to Paris. Fellow Brits Chris Froome, David Millar and Mark Cavendish won stages too. By time we boarded our flight, Britain was in the throes of Wiggomania. I couldn’t believe we’d get to witness a historic first British victory!
But first there was a bonus day of action. On Saturday we took a train to Chartres, an hour from Paris. As well as being home to the famous Gothic cathedral it was host to the time trial, the penultimate Tour stage. A time trial is a great value day for a cycling nerds – you get to see every single rider individually over the course of a couple of hours, for free!
First up was the caravane publicitaire, a noisy parade of Tour sponsor vehicles who warm up the crowds by chucking random free stuff at them. More experienced and physically coordinated spectators scored sweeties, hats, bags, wristbands and little cakes. We managed only a bottle of water!
Then the riders began to arrive. After cheering them on the telly it was thrilling to see the famous names in person and hear their bikes whoosh past at top speed.
When Bradley Wiggins powered by to seal his Tour victory, the roar from the crowd was deafening.
The time trial was so much fun, I worried the Champs-Élysées might be an anti-climax, but Sunday was magical. We emerged from the George V metro stop at lunchtime to see huge crowds under a perfect blue sky. The atmosphere was electric. We lucked out with a spot on the turn in front of the Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by hardcore British fans who’d been camped out since 8am to get the best view. By the time the publicity caravan rolled in around 4pm, the crowd was ten deep.
Finally we heard the cheers from further down the road . The peloton had arrived. They moved as one around the turn, the sound of the bikes rattling over cobblestones sending a shiver down my spine. I didn’t have a flag to wave so I settled for jumping up and down and cheering like a lunatic.
The tension built as the eight-lap race went on. The loudspeaker commentary was too advanced for my abysmal French so I relied on Twitter to tell me it was a close battle. When Mark Cavendish crossed the line for yet another win, the crowd went bananas.
There were tears and cheers as Bradley Wiggins did his victory speech, then some very tuneless singing of God Save the Queen. One by one each of the race teams rode up to the top of Champs-Élysées to pose in front of the Arc de Triomphe. Many of them snapped their own pictures with their phones. I can only imagine the joy and relief at completing an almost 3,000 kilometre lap of France.
Finally Team Sky arrived and we all screamed like it was The Beatles. The highlight of the weekend came when Wiggo pedalled right over to our little corner and let us bellow our congratulations. I never thought I’d see those famous sideburns so close up!
Top tips for watching the Tour de France
- To catch the final stage on the Champs-Élysées, stay at our Touquin campsite and get a train to Paris from the nearby Bussy Saint Georges or Marne la Vallée stations.
- Alternatively stay at Camping la Croix du Vieux Pont at Berny Rivière. Nearby Soissons and Compiègne have good train connections to Paris and beyond.
- The crowds are most packed near the Arc de Triomphe, but that’s the place to be if you love to be right in the middle of the action. Some well organised fans bring a folding chair to sit on!
- For more space, head to the other end near the Place de la Concorde. From the Tuileries gardens you can get a great view of the riders along the Seine. Visit letour.fr for stage maps.
- It’s a long wait for the peloton to arrive, so pack a picnic, a good book and lots of water and sunscreen!