Editor's note: While the following is the preview of the 2006 Tour de France, it may provide background as you prepare for this year's race.
It's no longer the Tour de Lance, but it's still the premier bicycle race and one of the largest annual sporting events in terms of spectators on earth. Yeah, it's going to be tougher to sport a Captain America suit and sprint after the riders (and the Devil) in the mountains but there's a new excitement with Le Tour this year, sans Armstrong. It's up for grabs and, now more than ever, American cycling needs your support! Allez George Hincapie! But really, if your rider or team wins, it's just a bonus. You're the winner for going to France in July, experiencing the Tour first-hand and sampling some of the world's best food, drink, sights and culture (yes, I said it, culture!).
There are many ways to "tour the Tour". There are organized tours that allow you to ride your bike on actual stages (or parts of stages) just before or after the tour itself. Some tours even let you pedal your Schwinn down the Champs d'Elysee in Paris just hours before the peloton thunders through the final stage. But if you don't want to put in any saddle time yourself, there are plenty of tours that leave the riding to the pros. Alternatively -- and perhaps the best way to do the tour -- you can go the do-it-yourself route. Here are some tips if you decide to embark on this never-to-be-forgotten journey.
Don't try to go to every stage: Unless you're trying to experience the grueling nature of the Tour de France by sitting in gridlock in a car, bus or van, don't try to go to every stage. Particularly in the mountains, traffic gets horrific. Instead, arrive early and depart late for select stages and use the time in between to do whatever to enjoy France: rent a bike and ride part of the stage, visit chateaus, go to wineries, eat a meal at a Michelin one-star (or better) restaurant or go snowboarding in the Alps (yes, really, even in July, you can tackle the glacier at Les Deux Alpes, near the famous L'Alpe d'Huez stage). When you're not actually at a stage, find a local bar in the afternoon with a TV order a "chope" (draft beer) or ten, and watch the action. Safety tip: Try not to engage the locals in discussions of Lance Armstrong and doping.
See a mountain stage: There's a stereotype of watching cycling road races in person, that goes something like this, "Yeah I camped overnight and waited all day and I saw the cyclists... for five seconds". Well, if you watch a flat stage of the Tour, that could be your experience. But if you watch the latter part of a mountain stage which has a steep uphill climb, the riders will have spread out and you will be able get some good face time with cyclists -- and you'll see suffering re-defined. Better yet, position yourself at a switchback so you can catch the action from multiple angles. If you have to choose just one, make it Stage 15 and car-camp on the hill the night before (the week before if you want to do it like the Dutch) on the climb up to L'Alpe d'Huez. If you dare ride this final section on your bike, think of the great Marco Pantani attacking this legendary 13.9 km climb in a record 37 minutes and 35 seconds in 1997.
Stage 10, Wednesday, July 12
Cambo-les-bains to Pau
Stage 11, Thursday, July 13
Tarbes to Val d'Aran Pla-de-Beret
Stage 15, Tuesday, July 18
Gap to L'Alpe d'Huez
Stage 16, Wednesday, July 19
Le Bourg-d'Oisans to La Toussuire
Stage 17, Thursday, July 20
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Morzine
See a time trial: Because riders (or teams) start at regular intervals, your spectating will be for hours, not seconds. Depending on the course, you may even be able to watch your favorite rider or team at the start and the finish. This year's best bet might be Stage 19, the second-to-last stage on the tour. It's unlikely that the yellow jersey won't be secure by this stage, but you never know. Remember, in 2003, it wasn't until Jan Ullrich crashed in the rain during a time trial, the second-to-last stage of that tour, that Armstrong's fifth Tour De France victory was secured.
Stage 7, Saturday, July 8
Saint-Grégoire to Rennes (52 km)
Stage 19, Saturday, July 22
Le Creusot to Montceau-les-Mines (56 km)
See both a finish and a start of a stage: If you're lucky, your tour will include a stage hosted by a city where the stage finishes there in the afternoon and departs from there the following morning. This way, you get more bang for your buck. Be sure to stay late (for the awards ceremonies) and arrive early (for the pre-departure preparation). There are only a few stages that fit this bill in any given year because each city pays for the privilege of hosting both the stage start and/or the finish.
Stages 2 and 3, July 3 and 4
Stages 13 and 14, July 15 and 16
Stages 14 and 15, July 16 and July 18 (Rest day in between stages)
Stages 17 and 18, July 20 and July 21
Be in Paris for the final stage: Nobody should have to tell you to go to Paris while in France, but watching the final stage of the Tour in Paris is particularly rewarding. Not because it's likely that the general classification will be won or lost that day (though Greg Lemond did this in 1989), but rather because the final stage includes multiple laps on the Champs d'Elysee. After the race, all the riders (survivors) of this 2000+-mile epic will even take a victory -- or, rather, completion -- lap at walking speed to thank their fans.
Stage 20, Sunday, July 23
Sceaux-Antony to Champs d'Elysee (152 km)
It's not too late!: Think it's too late to go to this year's Tour? Not a chance. The last time I went (in 2004) I left on a week's notice. Just be flexible and prepared to stay a bit further from the start and finish of each stage you plan to see.
Vive Le Tour!
Loren Schwartz is the former Executive Producer of EXPN.com, currently working for ESPN Interactive, but he's really just a wannabe domestique. He's been to the Tour de France twice.