You know it is summer in Paris when yellow fever hits and, suddenly, the Tour de France is everywhere. For Americans and those from football cultures like England, sport in Paris can seem more about style than sweat. But there is something especially thrilling about la Grande Boucle. For three weeks every summer, all over town, this something is extolled and celebrated.
This year’s tour arrives in Paris on Sunday, July 22. Its spectacular finish will involve 18 teams, performing for tens of millions via television. For 99 years now, fanatical crowds have been guaranteed at almost every stage. Following the tour’s progress bonds generations and offices, tourists and locals—plus cycling fans around the world.
Whether you are one or none of the above, watching the final stage has become its own sport in Paris. It’s easy to take part simply by getting there. Plus, with patience, you can grab some special photos.
Until you have caught the tour’s peloton in real time, it is hard to imagine just how fast the riders pass. This is one reason, along with the massive crowds and wait times, to avoid its final stretch down the Champs Elysées. There, you risk standing for hours just to glimpse a blur of colors. However, the riders make eight laps around the Louvre and the Tuileries, where the riverside provides an ideal vantage point. I’ve watched from here two years in a row and both times it was a great experience. Part of the reason is that the first whiz-bys give you several chances to gather your wits. You have time to practice scanning the pack and you can figure out where to aim your camera.
If you want a space in front, along the actual fencing, arrive at least two or three hours ahead. (Before and after, you will have the whole garden for strolls or a picnic.) The best photo angles require a spot on the Tuileries side where the height provides a good view down on the riders. But, if you want the rush of being mere inches away, position yourself along the Seine-side facing north. Note: hours before the riders arrive, barriers go up prohibiting passage across the actual quai. Therefore, if coming from the left bank to the Tulieries, do not bank on simply strolling across the road.
Having tried both perches, I recommend the river. You will stand the whole time against flimsy barriers and jostle for position with a lot of folks. But the crowds will not be 10 people deep and the riders do pass right in front of you. This viewpoint is a popular one for families. Kids love the colors and noise—and the fact that riders disappear into the Tuileries tunnel, and then reappear.
There is of course a substantial pause between each lap. But, as long as you are able to stand, it’s a lot of fun. Joining in the ritual gives you a taste of sport in Paris and, if you are dead set on seeing the finish, you can exit early and race into a café or tabac (the show is on-screen all over town). Failing this, there will be replays during every newscast. So grab your hat, digital camera and sunscreen; there is nothing quite like the tour and its aura.
No need to be left out of cycling mania. Vélib’, the famous Paris cycle-sharing system, is fun and easy to access. This summer, it celebrates five years of roaring success.
Editor’s note: Where should you stay to see the Tour de France? A hotel near the Champs makes sense, as you’ll be able to walk over to see the finish at the Place de la Concorde. Click on Centre under Sleep (in Paris) to find the perfect place.