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Tour de France in 2009, The Return of Lance Armstrong
Tags: barcelona, bicycling, lance armstrong, montpellier, tour de france, travelguides


The 2009 Tour de France is going to be special.
Lance Armstrong, possibly the world’s most impressive athlete, has come out of retirement to race in this year’s Tour de France, which runs from July 4 to July 26th. This year’s race will also be special because, the 21-stage race will not only cover much of the French country-side but also cross into Germany and Spain. 
Following the race for its entirety of almost a month could be prohibitively expensive. But there are ways to see a lot of the race and not blow the budget. Here are some tips based on my experiences following the Tour de France in 2005.
In February of that year, Armstrong announced he would retire and make 2005 his last Tour de France. After hearing the news I made a few phone calls to some friends, and within an hour we had a group of 6 people who were willing, ready, and able to take an adventure of a lifetime.
I planned a 10 day trip that would allow us to see four stages of the race, including the finish in Paris, and three days away from the race on a beach in Spain. We stayed in smaller hotels with great rates, and dined like kings and queens with our savings.
The official website of the Tour de France ( offers a good look at the race route.  Fans are well advised to avoid driving as much as possible, because the race will certainly take precedence over normal traffic, and if you aren’t familiar with the area you don’t want to end up following a detour and getting lost or even missing the race. I would advise using the French railroad system, which is quite good and an excellent way to get around.
It’s also a good idea to choose destinations that host multiple stages of the race. That way, you spend more of your time watching the event and less of your time moving from city to city and hotel to hotel. This turned out to be incredibly important, because we soon learned that following the tour was an all day affair that left everyone very tired. For example, in 2005, the city of Pau hosted a finish line, a “rest day,” and a starting line. After long days filled with walking, the familiarity of returning to the same hotel for several nights was comforting. 
If your preferred destination city doesn’t have any available hotels, look around to find nearby cities with rail service to your venue. I couldn’t find any vacant hotels in Pau so I consulted an excellent map to see what the nearby cities were.  I like the maps provided by ViaMichelin ( because they not only show you cities, roads, airports, and railroads, but also the names of the mountain passes that the Tour announcers frequently mention.  My group chose to stay in Lourdes, which was not very far from Pau and was itself a tourist destination with plenty of lodging and restaurants. ( 
 With our base camp in Lourdes we were able to see George Hincapie win the Stage on top of Pla-d’Adet in St-Lary-Soulan. At the finish line in Pau as we cheered for Lance Armstrong and the rest of the Discovery Team, we were interviewed by the OLN television (now known as Versus). A day later, at the starting line in Pau we got up close pictures of Jan Ullrich, Levi Leipheimer, Rasmussen, Thor Hushovd, and many other great cyclists!
For 2009, here are some cities that will host multiple stages of the Tour de France:
  • ·         Montpellier
  • ·         Barcelona, Spain
  • ·         Vittel
  • ·         Colmar
  • ·         Annecy
  • ·         Bourg Saint-Maurice
Montpellier will host a finish for one stage of the race and the start of another.  Montpellier also is special because it is the location chosen for the Team Time Trial, a favorite event for many TDF followers. Finding a vacant hotel in Montpellier might be possible if you have lots of money to spend or if the size of your group is small. On the other hand if you book a hotel in the nearby town of Beziers you can use to book a round trip ticket to Montpellier for as little as $18. Finding hotels in Beziers is simple, you can use:, or even,
After we had watched 3 of the mountain stages we were exhausted, so we hopped on the train and went to San Sebastian (aka. Donostia), Spain for a long weekend.  Here we sampled the Tapas and drank the local wines in the old town.  We strolled the beach of Playa de la Concha and relaxed.
 Finally, what trip to France would be complete without a trip to Paris? So after two days on the beach we hopped back on the railroad and took the high-speed TGV back to Paris. This all-day affair turned out to be one of the most enjoyable highlights as we talked about the trip, reviewed our photos, napped, or simply sat back and watched the countryside speed by. 
In Paris we took more terrific photos of the cyclists, met up with some new friends that we had made in Pau, ate at a Five-Star restaurant, and even did a tiny bit of sightseeing.  In planning the Paris leg of the trip I consulted each member of our group directly. I was certain that after 8 days and nights together the group was eager to each do their own thing.
So now that you have the scoop on how to plan your travel here are a few suggestions for viewing the race and perhaps even getting some nice photographs.
First off, get up early, get there early, pick your spot and don’t leave it once you’ve got it. Some spots are so jam packed with spectators that it is easy to get jostled out of the way, when the riders approach.
If you pick a sprint section on a day that is mostly flat then you can be certain the riders will pass you in a huge group – known as a Peloton. You’ll know they’re approaching when the crowd gets louder or when you start to see motorcycles with cameramen riding piggy-back. If you’re planning on photos in an area like this, I would advise against a long lens such as a telephoto or a zoom. While those might be the best lenses for the occasion they are really only effective if you have ideal placement, which is usually reserved for the press photographers. I would advise using a wide-angle lens, the wider the better to capture the action. In some cases the riders are so close to the crowd you can reach out and touch them (DON’T DO THAT – you could get arrested). On Pla-d’Adet, some riders literally rode underneath my camera! With a zoom lens I would have missed it.
You might consider a zoom lens for some of the mountain stages, maybe not to get pictures of the riders as they are passing close by but perhaps to get some of them from above as they snake their way through the hairpin turns.
So there you have it, my simple advice on seeing the Tour de France. The only other thing I would advise would be to bring plenty of water if you are seeing a stage away from a town. Be safe.