In July the wheels of the cycling world spin to Europe, and to France. The Tour de France, known to locals simply as 'Le Tour', pedals off on July 3 for three weeks of thunderous sprints, thigh-shredding ascents and a higher density of blisters in uncomfortable places than anywhere else in the world.
While the Tour is strictly speaking part of the regular cycling season, it is the event that captures international attention like no other. It's not hard to see why. The 20 stages – and one prologue – criss-cross France, the world's most popular tourist destination. On the way it skips through dense woodland, visits small towns that revel in the carnival atmosphere and attacks improbable Alpine and Pyrenean mountain passes. This year it climbs the highest road in the latter, the 2115m Col du Tourmalet - and not once, but twice. The finish in Paris, while usually a rolling party with a bit of sprinting at the end, is one of the finest of days to be in the French capital.
Each year the Tour dips into a few neighbouring countries and it occasionally ventures further from home. This year the Prologue, held on Saturday July 3, is a six-mile time trial around the streets of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The modern Dutch port city is hosting the Grand Départ on the fifth occasion the Netherlands has welcomed the Tour. From here the race spends the best part of three days in Belgium, finally entering northern France on Tuesday July 6 after a potentially thrilling day racing over sections of cobbles. These old roads, much beloved by cycling fans and at least some riders, will throw up some unpredictable results and probably a few hefty crashes.
Other stages to look out for include the Alpine stages of July 11 and 13 and the three days in the Pyrenees (July 18 – 20) which along with the time trial on July 24 will decide who gets to wear the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) for the final sprints along the Champs Elysee on Sunday 25 July.
How to be a spectator
Fancy joining the hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the route of the Tour? Here's the good news: you don't need a ticket. This is Europe's finest free sporting spectacle. With that freedom comes big, big crowds, many of whom camp out or stay in campervans the night before the race comes by.
The easiest way to get to the more remote places is by car - rent one or cadge a lift from a cycling fan you meet in a nearby town. However, as roads can be closed well in advance you may find that you need to hike up in the morning to secure a good spot. Of course, you can ride a bike instead of driving and spending a few days attacking some of the passes the Tour is not visiting this year makes for an excellent active holiday. Alternatively you can base yourself in a town the tour is passing through and turn up early to get a good vantage point. You might meet this chap too:
If anyone's making a pilgrimage to Le Tour this year, or has been before and has any tips, please post them here. Bon route!