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Wednesday, 28 June, 2000, 12:06 GMT
Following the circus

The time trial is the best chance to see each and every rider
The Tour de France is probably the best free show in the world - Sport Online has a few tips on watching the event.

If you are in France and the Tour goes anywhere near you, then do not miss it.

You might not understand cycling, you might even dislike it, but this is about more than sport.

From the growing sense of anticipation, to the garish publicity cavalcade and finally the ambulances and final cars, the event is a carnival-on-wheels.

And somewhere in the middle of this huge extravaganza is the world's most important cycle race.

Sausage on top of a car? Must be the Tour sponsors' cavalcade
Not a bad day out, particularly when you consider the only admission price you pay is your petrol, or better still, the pedal power to get you there.

Going by bike might cause you to sweat a little, particularly if you want to go halfway up a mountain.

But it also means you can find a parking space more easily - and kid yourself that you know what the riders are going through.

Each stage has its own atmosphere.

Watch on a flat stage in a village, for example, and the locals will leave it late before abandoning their televised view of the race to suddenly outnumber the visitors.

Out of their houses and shops they come, to laugh and exchange tales of the last time the race came here, some 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

The publicity cavalcade of Tour sponsors is the main reason this is a free show.

But it is also part of the performance, featuring some of the most bizarre motor vehicles you will ever see.

Plastic cheese

Vans carrying large lumps of plastic cheese, cars disguised as giant wristwatches and a small space shuttle featuring life size Michelin tyres were some of the best-dressed on the 1997 event.

A model space shuttle - with full size tyres
Most of the vehciles have occupants who throw small momentoes or bags of sweets, coffee and even pasta for a crowd eager to lap up anything to do with Le Tour.

Children - and even adults - have been known to fight over this treasure.

Cars and motorbikes containing police, officials and journalists follow the "caravane" at increasingly breakneck speed as the whirr of a distant helicopter heralds the imminent arrival of the race itself.

Then bang! In a flash over 100 bike riders came charging around the corner, at a staggering speed, followed by the team cars, leaving behind them a thick smell of hot diesel oil.

Finally there is the voiture balai, the broom-wagon which literally sweeps up any of the riders unable to complete the stage, and it is all over.

The hills are alive

Compared to the sudden, dramatic experience of the Tour on the flat, the mountain stages have an even more more frenzied atmosphere.

Paris crowds are swelled by Tour fans
This is where the real fans head, many pitching tents or parking their motorhomes to stage a party the night before.

The riders are spread out in a longer line, the crowds twice as deep and the publicity caravan struggles to make it along narrow roads populated by thousands.

If you take a motorhome and a couple of deckchairs you can even build your own personal grandstand for the best view on the hill.

But these are not the only scenes on the Tour tableau.

A whole day can be spent seeing each and every rider come past in an individual time trial, before you ride the route along with hundreds of others as the leader rapidly disappears from sight.

Paris in midsummer

And a midsummer weekend in Paris can be given some extra "joie de vivre" by the race's final Sunday.

Paris crowds are swelled by Tour fans
Here, the Champs Elysees has all the atmosphere of a mile-long football stadium populated by face-painted fans from across Europe, and the riders come past a number of times before the finish.

But one tip for Paris: Get there early to see anything.

Or better still, find a café-bar with a first floor window overlooking the road, order a meal and a bottle of wine, and then watch the race on the television before seeing it go past as it nears its final conclusion.

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See also:

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Tour 2000: Young stars
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Britain at the Tour
Links to top Tour de France stories are at the foot of the page.

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