It was an event three weeks in the making. After winding their way through the rugged beauty of Bretagne, down the Massif Central, up and down the Pyrenees, across Provence, and through the Alps, the Tour de France cyclists finally made their way towards the finish line in Paris. Determined not to miss the famous sprints along the Champs-Elysées, we headed out a few hours in advance of the big arrival in order to stake out a good viewing spot. We were not alone: more than three hours before the bikers would make their appearance and not a front row spot in the house. Settling in for a second-row picnic and marathon waiting session, our efforts were not to be in vain. The sight, sound, and feeling of the race as it whizzed by was definitely worth waiting for.
There are a few things you need to know about the final leg of France's world famous cycling event. First, it's a really big deal. Over 240,000 lined the route in Paris. Everywhere you look people are wearing yellow T-shirts and hats carrying the Tour de France logo. Even more are carrying yellow Tour de France messenger bags. People bring ladders so they can see over the crowds. Spectators from all over the world wave the flags of their countries. Music is blaring, announcers with microphones keep the crowd informed, and the race is broadcast on giant TV screens set up along the route so that you can see the race as it winds through the French countryside on its way to the Champs-Elyées. Second, it's highly commercialized. Before you see the cyclists fly past, you are treated to a parade of advertisements. All of the Tour's sponsors find wacky and entertaining ways to market their wares to the spectators. Ads for everything from laundry detergent, to La Vache Qui Rit cheese to, from what I could best make out, a company that sells propane tanks, meandered by. According to the official Tour de France website, this practice is known as the "Publicity Caravan," and has been used since 1930 to fund the event.
Lastly, it's important to know that if you happen to find yourself in Paris on the final day of the Tour, any amount of waiting or crowd-wrangling you might have to do to catch a glimpse of the race will be well worth it. The speed with which the cyclists fly by is much more impressive in person than on TV. You hear the whirring of their bikes, you see the concentration on their faces, and you feel the energy they bring to the event. They're all riding so close to one another, it's a wonder there aren't more accidents! But these guys are experts; even on the bumpy cobblestoned Champs-Elysees they maintained perfect control over their bikes. Seeing the race firsthand will definitely give you a better appreciation for the sport and it's main event. I'm already looking forward to next year's Tour. Seeing as it's the third most-watched sporting event in the world (behind only the Olympics and the World Cup of soccer), I'm sure I'm not alone.