Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong may have hung up his helmet for good, but this year's Tour de France, July 1-23, is packed with thrills and spills, plus challengers such as American Floyd Landis--Armstrong's former teammate--and Australian Robbie McEwen. Cheered on by crazed fans, rail-thin gladiators race for 2,000 miles up steep mountain roads and through pristine countrysides, with a final charge down Paris's grandest boulevard, the Champs-Élysées.
Getting there Scores of bike-touring companies sell ride-and-watch packages, most quite expensive--an eight-day trip from VéloSport Vacations costs $4,795 (800/988-9833, velovacations.com). With prices like that, many spectators prefer to go the independent route. After all, the Tour de France is free. There are no tickets, no stadiums, no grandstands. The best way to follow the Tour's hopscotch route is by car. Try Auto Europe or Kemwel, which does short-term leases that can be cheaper than renting.
You made it The Tour changes course each year, so check the route and plot a plan of attack. It's too exhausting to try to watch all 20 stages. Instead, pick a few key spots and soak up the atmosphere of the race--preferably while sipping a Côtes du Rhône. Arrive early and stake out a spot on a twisting switchback or a hilltop with sweeping views of the road. Or cycle the race route yourself; you're allowed to ride on the road up to 90 minutes before the pros arrive. There's no charge on international flights for toting a bike, though it'll count as a checked bag. Or rent a bike locally for around $30 a day. With the Tour's entourage of thousands of racers, journalists, and officials, hotels fill up early. Check the two- and three-star family-run hotels in the Logis de France network. One hotel we can specifically recommend: Le Coin Fleuri, which is at Digne-les-Bains and has a large garden that's perfect for a relaxing déjeuner (011-33/492-310-451, from $52).
Who Knew? Held since 1903, the race is now the world's largest annual sporting event. The 2005 race was watched--in person--by 15 million spectators and on TV by 2 billion viewers in 170 countries.
For Armchair Viewers
OLN: Daily video clips, interviews, photo galleries, and race updates
Bicycling.com: Interactive maps and results, plus facts and history
Velonews.com: Live blog of the tour, video, and photos