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The 2007 edition of the Tour de France begins with a first-ever start in London on July 7 and ends with the usual parade laps around the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 29.
During the three weeks in between, nearly 200 riders will cover more than 2,200 miles of roadway, braving headwinds, fearsome climbs, rain, searing heat, the ever-present danger of high-speed pileups and zealous fans who sometimes get a little too close to the action.
Tour riders survive the marathon with the help of pit crews that provide sustenance, massages and transportation between stages to get them through.
But following the Tour as a spectator, even for just a day or two, can also be a grueling athletic event. The fan's race is a test of planning ability, long-distance driving, navigational skills and stamina. And you are on your own, unless you're bringing your own coach, chauffeur, chef and physical therapist.
Tour de France travel tips
Flying into Paris? DON'T rent a car at distant Charles DeGaulle Airport or in the city itself. Traffic on the beltway is habitually horrendous, and you'll waste a lot of time trying to escape it.
Put your jet-lagged self on a high-speed train to the city or region closest to where you want to rendezvous with the Tour peloton and reserve a car at the train station there.
Most of the major car-rental companies have locations in or just outside big-city train terminals, and dropping the car off in a different city isn't usually a problem. Make sure to check on hours, as many rental-car counters are closed on nights and weekends.
DO make a point of getting to at least one town at which a stage starts. Come in the day before the race or stay over that night after the cyclists leave and watch what the locals go through to host the invasion.
Team buses aren't always parked in publicly accessible areas, but the riders have to wheel their way through the crowds to get to the daily sign-in podium where they're introduced individually. Even the most well-known riders routinely stop to chat or sign autographs.
And there's always plenty of street food and entertainment.
Just remember that you might not be able to chase the peloton right away; it can take a long time to get out of town after the start because of traffic and road closures.
DO try to make one mountaintop finish, even if you can't get a room. You'll trade an enormous amount of travel time for a few minutes of actual race viewing, but the atmosphere at these vertical tailgates has to be experienced to be believed.
Make sure you get there well before the roads close. Pack snacks, bottled water and warm clothing, even if it's a broiling summer day; temps get chilly fast when the sun sets at altitude, and you'll be unlikely to get off the mountain in time for dinner.
Check out camping options with the local tourism bureau. Some mountain towns ferry spectators up with ski lifts or gondolas, which is a great option. Indeed, park your car at the base of the lift; ride up; ride down again after the race; get a table at the closest eatery; and rehash the day while the traffic clears.
Alps or Pyrenees? The Alps are controlled chaos. The Pyrenees can be just plain chaotic, with more unruly crowds and less of a police presence.
Alpine ski resort towns are generally better equipped for summer tourists (read: you watch the race from a sidewalk café), while their Pyrenees counterparts tend to be somewhat barren (you line up for spicy sausage of dubious origin from a one-day entrepreneur's portable grill). But DO consider roughing it at the ruggedly beautiful, lesser-known Pyrenees destinations anyway.
The flatter stages can be a blast, too. Once the final race timetable is announced, DO pick a town or rural location along the route, get there before the roads close (usually at least two hours before the race passes through!) and have a roadside picnic or join French fans in a town square. Crowds will be thickest and rowdiest where there are tight turns.
First through will be the circuslike "publicity caravan'' of garish sponsors' cars, whose drivers dispense free souvenirs; it wends through towns at a leisurely pace. The riders then will buzz by in a blur, but your day will be indelible, just the same.
DON'T ask for directions American-style, by using an east-west-north-south query or asking about a road number you see on a map. The French will just want to know where you're headed, then give you a series of instructions to go "right straight through the roundabout then right again then left then straight toward (city X),'' which can be hard to translate in more ways than one. If you can get GPS in your rental car, go for it.
Afraid to use your feeble French on the phone? DON'T rely on the umbrella online reservation services you'll come across when you do Internet searches on hotels, or you might find yourself sleeping in the car.
Always communicate with the hotel or the hotel chain directly. E-mail them or send a fax (many French hotels still require a fax to book rooms anyway).
Click here for a useful starting point for lodging listings and employ the English-language icon. The Best Western, Holiday Inn and Accor (Ibis, Mercure, Novotel) chains are omnipresent in France and their reservation Web sites are dependable and easy to use from the United States.
DO consult the Michelin Red Guide, which lists tourism bureaus in every town of any size in France. The bureaus track hotels with vacancies for Tour nights, and staff members usually are courteous, helpful and willing to try to break down the language barrier.
And DON'T despair if you're striking out with hotels months before the race. Travel agencies book everything within a wide radius as soon as the start and finish towns are announced, then gradually release rooms over the next few months as actual reservations come in.
It's possible the hotel that's full in February will have rooms in May. If you're willing to wing it, you can always find something at the last minute.
Note: The full, town-by-town timetables for each day of the Tour through Stage 15 are now available at www.letour.fr. Click on the English-language icon in the lower right-hand corner, then click on "the route" and "time schedules.'' Timetables for the remaining stages will be posted on May 14.
The 5-mile "prologue" time trial route in London looks as if it traces the path of one of those red double-decker tourist buses, looping past almost every downtown landmark.
Check out the "People's Village'' from July 6-8 in Hyde Park, which should be a fan epicenter with entertainment, exhibits, food and drink. More information about the London start is available online.
These first 48 hours of the Tour give you a chance at a once-in-a-lifetime sporting double. Opening weekend overlaps with the final weekend at nearby Wimbledon.
Stage 1 ends in historic Canterbury. Riders will pick up the route across the Channel in Dunkirk the morning of July 9. The race then slips into cycling-addled Belgium for an overnight visit.
Stages 2 and 3 meander across terrain bloodied in World War I and now dotted thickly with monuments and museums that attest to the huge loss of life.
At Compiègne, a short train ride from Paris and the finish town for Stage 3, you can walk to the forest clearing where the treaty ending World War I was signed in a train car. Adolf Hitler later used the same car to make France's 1940 World War II surrender official. (The armistice museum is housed in a replica of that car.)
Bike freaks know this picturesque city as the start of the Paris-Roubaix race. Some of the bone-jarring cobblestone roads featured in the "Hell of the North" will be part of the Tour route. They'll traverse one of those stretches in the early afternoon of July 10 in the town of Wallers.
On July 11, consider making your way to the tranquil riverside town of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, where actress Leslie Caron the same mademoiselle who danced with Gene Kelly in "An American in Paris'' owns a lovely restaurant, La Lucarne aux Chouettes. After skirting the Paris metropolis not far from Euro Disneyland, the peloton will breeze through Villeneuve-sur-Yonne on its way to the Stage 4 finish in Joigny.
Do some wine-tasting around the Stage 5 start in Chablis. Then follow the riders into the Morvan regional park favored by recreational cyclists, hikers and history buffs alike. Its woods and valleys sheltered French Resistance fighters who disrupted Nazi occupiers during World War II, exploits detailed in a museum in Saint-Brisson.
The Tour route passes the ancient Celtic hilltop settlement of Bibracte, where Julius Caesar camped out in 51 B.C.
The city of Beaune is one of the gastronomic capitals of the Burgundy region, and a good place to overnight after the stage 5 finish in Autun.
Stage 6 ends in Bourg-en-Bresse, famous for its poultry and within striking distance of Beaujolais country. Stay in Macon or venture up the wine route. The Chateau de Pizay in nearby St. Jean d'Ardieres, surrounded by vineyards, was the training base for the U.S. soccer team during the 1998 World Cup. Players didn't care for the splendid isolation, but you might.
France's national holiday of Bastille Day falls on the second Saturday of the race, when the riders enter the Alps. Accommodations can be hard to come by on July 14, no matter which day of the week it happens to fall. The 1992 Winter Olympics host city of Albertville, which lies along the race route July 15, and the pleasant lakeside town of Annecy provide lodging options within a reasonable drive.
If you can find a room, head for the Col de la Colombière, halfway between Cluses and La Clusaz. It's the first Category 1 climb in the race and riders will crest it near the end of Stage 7. There's a downhill finish leading into Le Grand Bornand, where Lance Armstrong blew past the competition for a rare sprint win in 2004. French riders in particular will be applying mettle to the pedals.
Stage 8 should be the first potentially decisive day of the race and features a climb to Tignes, where the Tour takes the day off July 16. Tignes and its sister resort of Val d'Isere are regular stops on the World Cup ski circuit. While the riders rest, an ambitious fan could try hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canyoning, paragliding, 4x4 and horseback expeditions and a full range of water sports.
Or you could skip ahead to the Stage 9 finish in Briancon, then make your way past Gap where Armstrong so famously cut across a hayfield to avoid a crash and use the rest day to explore the high-altitude Ubaye Valley and the deep turquoise, man-made Serre-Poncon Lake at its heart.
Parts of Marseille, the Stage 10 finish and Stage 11 start, are dicey, but if you can score a place to stay in the old port area, it's a great place to stroll, people-watch and get a bowl of bouillabaisse.
Two towns along the route July 18 are worth a special visit. St. Maximim-la-Sainte-Baume features a 13th century basilica with an adjacent convent that has been converted to a hotel and restaurant. The crisp rosé wines made in the region are great heat-beaters. Cassis, 19 miles east of Marseille on the coast, is a mini-resort with fantastic views of the limestone cliffs called the Calanques. Try a boat tour if you want to get closer.
Follow the peloton on the transitional Stage 11 to Montpellier, then visit the beaches and fishing towns that ring the Bassin de Thau, a vast, brackish lagoon separated from the Mediterranean Sea by an Outer Banks-like sandbar. Don't leave without slurping down some oysters.
Fairytale is an overused word when it comes to dreamy country towns, but there's really no other way to describe Cordes-sur-Ciel, a fortified medieval hamlet built into and atop a hill that seems to rise out of nowhere. It's only 16 miles from Albi, where the Tour's first, crucial long time trial (Stage 13) will begin and end July 21.
Check out the scene at the start and finish, then spend part of the day wandering around Cordes-sur-Ciel. The steep cobblestone streets are lined with appealing restaurants, stores and galleries, and the town also hosts its annual classical music festival July 17-29.
Many Tour devotees use Toulouse or Lourdes as a base for Pyrenees stages. Toulouse, with a major university and a full schedule of summer cultural events, is vibrant, historic, eye- and stomach-pleasing and difficult to navigate by car. Lourdes is the Las Vegas of shrines. Both are entertaining stopovers.
The Tour will pause for a second rest day July 24 in Pau, the southwestern city that is a regular Tour stop. Have lunch at one of the outdoor restaurants on the rue du Chateau and watch cyclists glide in after a training ride, lean their expensive bikes against a table and have a coffee or a bite to eat like regular folks.
Travel from Pau to the two mountain stages on either side of the rest day, or be there for the start of Stage 17 on July 26. The city features great shopping, eating and a lively pedestrians-only area near Henri IV's castle, parts of which date from the 13th century. Extensive re-construction of the downtown area, including badly-needed underground parking, should be finished by the time the Tour arrives.
Around Cahors, the Stage 18 start, sample the region's dark, rich red wines and trek to some of the out-of-the-way stone villages in the area known as Quercy. St. Cirq-Lapopie, perched above the Lot River about 16 miles east of Cahors, is especially scenic.
You don't need to be told what goes in your snifter at the July 28 time trial start in Cognac, do you? Famous producers like Remy Martin, Hennessey, Martell and Otard offer factory tours there.
If you're intent on getting back to Paris for the final festivities July 29, hit the highway after the time trial, drop your car at an intermediate city like Limoges or Orleans, and take the train that night or the next morning.
Sportswriter Bonnie DeSimone has covered the Tour de France for the last seven years.