If you love the spectacle and hoopla that surrounds the greatest bike race in the world, then planning to view the Tour de France with kids makes for an exciting family holiday adventure. Far from being a cycling enthusiasts-only event, people from all walks of life gather on the roadside to cheer on the hard-working riders – with children of every age from babies through to the big kids. For a unique way to view the French countryside with kids and take in a world-class sporting event, there’s nothing like taking kids to the Tour de France.
The Tour de France is a much more family-friendly event than you might expect from watching it on television. Certainly the French themselves use Le Tour as an excuse to bring entire communities into the streets to celebrate – as well as small infants and toddlers in strollers, elderly people, spectators in wheelchairs and fans in all manner of weird and wonderful outfits all gather together to show their support for the yellow jersey and the peloton. There is very little rowdiness and a very strong police presence and because the race is spread out over such long distances, the crowds are quite manageable.
No matter how much time you choose to devote to watching the Tour de France with kids, the atmosphere is always something like a local street party. You will be welcomed by enthusiastic and happy fans, all there to join in the free entertainment. There is almost no pressure to purchase any official merchandise (in fact, very few French actual wear the official yellow tees so it’s easy to spot the tourists); everyone just wants to cheer, collect freebies and witness the bikes as they speed past. It is an event that particularly resonates with young (pre-teen upwards) boys who enjoy the hooting, shouting and excuse to be noisy.
The Tour always starts with the official tour caravan – a free parade of sponsors’ vehicles that might seem overly commercial and tacky to adults but will be the highlight for the kids.
Cars dressed up as giant watches or laden with bottles of juice blast pop music as they zoom past throwing out freebies to the screaming kids (and some grown ups). Packets of madeleines, frisbees and other promotional items come flying through the air above the crowds and create a lot of excitement for children who love chasing after the complimentary hats and erasers.
For the adults and the kids who understand the race, then it’s time to wait for the cyclists (typically about 2 hours behind the caravan). It is only live that you get a real sense of the speed, professionalism and seriousness of the Tour de France. On the ground you also get a sense of the sheer scale of the event as you witness the volume of support vehicles, medical cars, media and official Tour organiser vehicles that move up the road.
If you devote a few days to following different stages of the Tour, there is the added bonus of a driving tour around the French countryside to faraway, tiny towns you might otherwise not have selected as a family holiday destination. Chasing the Tour means you will end up on some back roads and out-of-the-way places not typically traversed by tourists which is a lovely way to experience a different and more authentic side of France.
Alternatively, following the Tour is a novel way to introduce cycling and exercise to kids. Many families follow some stage of the Tour on bicycle themselves, purchasing full racing gear and setting out several hours before the peloton to select a spot to join in the fun.
The best way to get an overall experience of the Tour de France with kids without too much pressure and stress is to set aside several days exclusively to Tour chasing. Plan to experience at least one different part of a stage every day (for instance, a stage start, then a stage finish, then a road race section) – two is probably the greatest number of sightings you will get of the peloton in any one day. After all this is a bike race – if you plan to only try to catch the riders once they will zoom past in a flash and it will be all over in an instant.
The official Tour de France website has all the predicted timings throughout the day for when the cyclists will visit each vantage point for every stage. You can use this to plan everything from your accommodation to where to stop for lunch and how you will follow the race.
Typically the caravan is about 2 hours ahead of the cyclists so for the full experience you will need to be at the finish at least this far in advance of the cyclists’ predicted arrival.
The closer you are to the finish, the more entertaining it is. Sponsors ramp up the crowds by running around in funny costumes and throwing freebies out to the super excited kids. Children will love the thrill of shouting at the human sized baguette or banging on the barricades to try to get a free bottle of water. The atmosphere is friendly, safe and fun although it can get crowded. Bring along a small, lightweight bag to carry away all your goodies you collect with you.
Around the finish line you can view the podium, food and merchandise stalls and there is a large television screen. (Yes, you can also buy beer.) There are public portaloos and you can view all the official statistics and team buses and cars as they arrive. Commentators are constantly on the loudspeakers to get the crowded going as the cyclists come into the finish line which adds to the atmosphere (even though it is all in French).
An actual glimpse of the cyclists themselves, though, is pretty rare here. The barricades are huge and the competition with the international media, race and team officials and other fans means you are not likely to see more of the racers than a quick flash of colour as they sprint past.
The further away you are from the finish line, the quieter it is and the lower the barricades. While you will miss out on the free entertainment, you will get closer to the cyclists. Finding a vantage point on a corner rather than a straight will give you a more intimate experience as the riders need to slow down.
Trying to view a race finish at the Tour de France with kids is a thrilling, but slow experience. To really ensure a spot right on the barricade and near the finish you will have to spend a number of hours waiting patiently. If you really want to stay and experience the whole thing with small kids, pack a large snack bag of sugary snacks to keep energy levels higher for longer.
Stage starts are a good place to experience some of the Tour de France with kids and require a little less effort than the stage finishes because you have real certainty about what time things kick off. This makes it easier to manage everyone’s expectations, especially if your little ones are impatient.
Tour de France race starts have all the facilities (public portaloos, food stalls, official race merchandise stands, proper barricades) of a race finish as well as all the hoopla.
But the other added advantage is you get a chance to see the riders up close and very personal if you pick a spot near the carpark where all the team vehicles set up camp. Hang out here and you can see the pros warming up, chatting to the media and sometimes even stopping for an autograph or a photo with eager young fans.
To really see the cyclists launch from the starting line as well as in pre-race mode is difficult in one day especially if you are trying to move through the crowds with little children, so consider breaking up the two activities over two days.
Roadside Viewing Points
There are also plenty of places in the multiple hours the peloton races each day to see the bikes whiz past you roadside. While the caravan will still go past, the atmosphere is not quite so intense. But the added advantage is there are not so many barricades and you can come within inches of the speeding bikes.
The more remote and smaller towns can have a very lively and community-based atmosphere as locals set up small barbeque tents, bring out their armchairs and a bottle of wine and make a whole day of the passing of Le Tour.
This is the very special and unique Tour experience we know from television. Coming into the countryside you will see hay bales made into all sorts of funny characters, kids running along the road collecting the discarded feed bags, tractors and caravans camped alongside the fields with bottles of wine and plates of cheese.
When picking a roadside vantage point, choose somewhere that the race is likely to slow down and the peloton may be more broken up. For instance, look for feeding points, small hills or narrow roads. By similar logic, sprint points are unlikely to be a great place to view the Tour de France with kids as the cyclists will be at top speed and it may not be worth the long wait for such short satisfaction.
But beware that the more remote the town and the fewer access points, the longer the traffic jams later. Choosing to see the race on a country road versus a big city means (if you time your arrival well and are prepared to miss the caravan) you may spend less time waiting around for the cyclists to arrive but you should definitely expect to spend at least a couple of hours in gridlock afterwards trying to get out.
In theory the mountain stages are a fantastic way to experience the Tour de France with kids as here the peloton is usually quite spread out and the riders are moving at their slowest. But you must be extremely strategic about which mountain you pick and how long you are willing to devote to being there. The nature of a mountain stage can mean there is often only one way to the top – and that is the road the cyclists will be on. This means you will need to arrive early and, once there, may not be able to leave for quite some time until after the roads are cleared again.
Depending on the popularity of the mountain you choose, you may also find carparking is difficult which means you will need to trudge up said hill with all the children in tow.
It is not advisable to attempt a mountain stage if you have toddlers who need to be kept active and entertained. There is a very small margin of error between the speeding support cars that drive up the road and the very steep drop off the other side and, unless you are at the peak, there are no barricades from the road. Mountains really work best only if you have infants who are easily controlled or older children who can understand the dangers and obey instructions.
The weather on the mountain stages is also far more unpredictable. It can be quite cold standing around waiting for many hours – similarly if the temperatures are high it can be very hot. You will need lots of snacks and every form of outdoor clothing and protection just in case.
Watching the Tour de France with kids can mean quite long days. As well as waiting for the cyclists to arrive you can spend several hours in traffic either chasing the Tour or just trying to get your car back to a major road and to the hotel. You need to plan and pace out incentives and rewards for good behaviour, especially if you are travelling with pre-schoolers.
The Tour de France is the
most important road race in the world – with the best riders. Blink and you
really will miss them. While the commercialism of the caravan may not seem
appealing to adults, it is exactly this which will keep the smaller kids
enthusiastic and going for hours on end for what (to them) might otherwise seem
like very little reward. Try to plan a minimum of two hours at every vantage
point so the kids at least have the thrill of catching more free items to stuff
inside their suitcases.
Because the Tour route changes every year and most of the promotional information pertains to race and team statistics, not family holiday practicalities, there are not a lot of support services around assisting English-speaking families to know which roads to take, which vantage points are best or where and how to position yourselves. A lot of it is trial and error. The key to a successful day of watching the Tour de France with kids is to be patient and not too ambitious. Be realistic about what can be achieved in the time frame you have and just how much driving and waiting is actually going to be involved.
Pack daypacks for all weather conditions from extremely hot (include water, sunscreen, hats and sunglasses) to cold and wet (umbrellas can be cumbersome in very crowded situations so opt for warm waterproof jackets with hoods and waterproof shoes).
It is very important to keep a tight hold of young kids and pre-warn teenagers about the excitement of the cyclists arriving, especially if you are watching from an area where there are no barricades. Not only are there bicycles to consider, there are many (fast) moving vehicles that do not always take into account spectators who might have veered off the side of the road.
Carparking varies depending on which part of the race you want to join, but generally there are no big public carparks to help ease congestion. You will need to be prepared to abandon the car a little distance from where you want to actually see the race and walk in. Do as the locals do and, where you see them parking on nature strips or sidewalks, just follow and do the same.
To read more about cycling with kids, see the story about a suitcases&strollers family who cycled from Alaska to Argentina here.