It’s now 112 years since the first edition of the Tour de France – and with the 102nd edition taking place this year, the race still remains a sporting phenomenon. It’s a contest in which the big names – and there have been plenty, both noble and ignoble, from Hinault, Merckx and Indurain to Wiggins, Pantani and Armstrong – have always played second fiddle to the event itself.
Banner Image Credit:iStock.com/Razvan
Still far higher-profile than any other cycling race, it spans a full three weeks, during which time the meadows and mountains of France provide a shifting backdrop for a fast-travelling extravaganza of lycra jerseys and TV vans. Pelotons purr through cornfields. Villages zip past in blurs of flags and cheers. Riders calf-pump their way up punishingly steep peaks.
Image Credit: iStock.com/Razvan
The whole thing has, of course, become a highly effective showcase for France itself, and should you find your wanderlust stirred, retracing the various stages of the route by car is easily done. Travelling by four wheels requires a lot less training – and you’re able to focus on things like the menus du jour rather than points classifications.
This year’s route is split into two main sections (prior to the customary Paris finish) with teams first negotiating the landscapes of the north before shifting down to the southwest and pedalling east towards the Italian border. If you’re unsure where to choose for a road trip, here are nine standout stages of the 2015 race – which actually begins in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Being cycled: Sun July 5th
The canal-laced Dutch city of Utrecht serves as a suitably atmospheric start-point for this year’s Tour (unsurprisingly, it’s also a great town for exploration by bike). Froome, Nibali and co will be jostling for early points as they power down towards the coastal delta region of Zeeland; in a car, meanwhile, you can enjoy the near pancake-flat drive at a more measured pace. The stage also represents the first ever time the Tour has incorporated “offshore” cycling.
Being cycled: Mon July 6th
Crossing into Belgium, the following day’s stage begins in the bright-eyed port city of Antwerp, which hosted the Summer Olympics back in 1920. Ninety-five years on, the sporting focus is on the journey from here to the historic town of Huy. The route passes centuries-old convents and castles before reaching the famous Mur de Huy, a hill which, while standing only 128m high, represents a notoriously tough finish. Cycling fans will be familiar with it as the final part of the annual Flèche Wallonne race.
Being cycled: Thurs July 9th
This is the most scenically enjoyable day’s riding of the northern section – mainly because it includes a stretch of some 75 miles alongside the chalk cliffs of the Seine-Maritime region. It can get seriously windy on two wheels, but on four you can afford to dwell instead on the Normandy seafood on offer in low-key resorts like Saint-Valery-en-Caux and Étretat. Le Havre, meanwhile, is a fine destination in its own right – the town’s modern architecture saw it inscribed onto Unesco’s World Heritage List in 2005.
Being cycled: Sat July 11th
Rennes, Brittany’s likeable capital city, has featured as a Tour de France stage town no less than 15 times. Attention this year, however, is more focused on the stage finish at Mûr-de-Bretagne – the so-called “Alpe d’Huez of Brittany”, which at times has a gradient of 15%. Visitors to the area between now and November, meanwhile, have the unique chance to see Lac de Guerlédan, Britanny’s largest lake, fully drained to allow for dam repair work.
Being cycled: Tues July 14th
The landscapes ramp up as the Tour moves south, and this looping route into the Pyrenees culminates with a harsh climb up to the 1,610m-high mountain pass of La Pierre St Martin, tight on the Spanish border. Another highlight of the stage is the millennium-old village of Navarrenx, now officially ranked as one of the most beautiful in the country. And as well as being photogenic, the stage also has literary heritage – it’s the home region of Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers.
Being cycled: Fri July 17th
Three days later, the route slices through the dramatic countryside of the Tarn Valley, skirting popular tourist spots such as Toulouse and the cathedral town of Albi – a short diversion will even bring you to Sir Norman Foster’s extraordinary Millau Viaduct. Special mention also goes to the little town of Rodez itself, where a major new art museum, the Musée Soulages, was opened by President Hollande in mid-2014.
Being cycled: Weds July 22nd
A day of tough, thrilling ascents, this 100-mile stretch is dominated by the 2,250m-high presence of the Col d’Allos, a peak that was virtually a mainstay on the Tour in the early decades. Less strenuous but no less picturesque is the final climb up to the ski resort of Pra Loup – an ascent that was too much for the great Eddy Merckx, who famously struggled to complete it back in 1975.
Being cycled: Thurs July 23rd
This year marks two centuries since Napoleon’s 1815 return from exile on Elba, and the route he followed – known, aptly, as the Route Napoleon – will also be traced by the riders as they leave Gap. The stage is about far more than commemoration, however. Negotiating seven separate climbs, including the arduous 13.5-mile ascent of Col du Glandon, the day finishes with the 18 switchback bends of Montvernier. A gruelling cycle, a great drive.
Being cycled: Sat July 25th
Alpe d’Huez is synonymous with the Tour (riders even had to climb it twice in one day in 2013), as is the Col du Galibier, which at 2,645m represents the highest point on this year’s route. It’s the latest that Alpe d’Huez has ever appeared in the race – riders will be pelting down the Champs-Élysées to cross the finish line the very next day – but this won’t make it any less of a spectacle.
See letour.com for precise route maps