The Tour de France claims to be the most-attended sporting event in the world. It’s certainly the world’s largest arena. Anyone can walk up and claim a spot along 2,000-plus miles of roadside and see it live, for free, no ticket necessary. As a result, there may not be a more colorful cast of fans anywhere.
Here is a taxonomy of the people you might see next to the road of the Tour de France. It is as exhaustive as I could make it, but by no means complete. Please let me know if I missed a key subgroup in the comments. Or just @ me.
“Local” here is loosely defined as anyone who easily blends into the scenery. I reckon most of the people you see by the side of the road don’t come from far, but it’s a specific set who are so comfortable with the environment they can seem like a natural part of it.
Locals with furniture
Locals without furniture
Some people don’t think through their day at the Tour de France as much more than showing up, standing around for hours, snagging a free hat, yelling their asses off for the three seconds that riders are going by, and going home.
On the far end, some locals won’t watch the Tour go by except in utmost comfort, hauling out full living room sets by the side of the road so they can eat a four-course lunch, smoke cigarettes, snag a free hat, yell their asses off for the three seconds that riders are going by, and go home.
Man in a ditch sleeping at a 90-degree angle on a mountain
A surprising number of people like to sleep next to the Tour de France. While others are picnic-ing, drinking, chatting, or doing any of the things people usually do to pass the time before a sporting event, others are curled up on some nearby grass using a jacket as a pillow.
Something about the brutal climb up to La Planche des Belles Filles made one man supremely comfortable. He stuck his butt in the ditch next to the road, bent his body into a perfect ‘L’, and slumbered peacefully before the riders came by.
Keepers of the regional flag
Usually young men, these people have taken upon themselves the duty of reminding people where they are. It’s a noble task, given how quickly the Tour passes in and out of regions. A notable subset of these people are Bretons, who will show up anywhere and everywhere to wave Brittany’s flag.
French local industry protestors
Either in favor of industry or against industry, and usually equipped with a spray-painted burlap sign. In the Vosges mountains it was against industry, namely loggers who had been clearing out the area. On rural roads everywhere, it was local farmers standing up against corporate mega-farming. A good reminder that the gorgeous scenery is made up of real places and doesn’t simply exist over the course of the 23 days we get to stare at it through our TVs.
I see you, peeking down at the road around a half-closed shutter.
We see you, standing with a glass of wine and a cigarette with a perfect view down onto the finish line that everyone who’s mushed up against the barrier would kill to have.
Banging on the plastic panels lining the final meters into the finish in an enthusiastic yet still-hinged manner.
Just murdering that shit.
Cheeky old people
La Planche des Belles Filles was the first Category 1 climb of the 2019 Tour, at seven kilometers and gradients that tipped into 20 percent near the top. Its name translates to “The Plank of the Beautiful Girls,” and references the legend of a group of local girls who fled into the Vosges mountains to escape capture by Swedish mercenaries during the Thirty Years’ War. They committed suicide by throwing themselves off the mountain into the lake below rather than be taken captive.
This terrible story that gets repeated every time La Planche is featured in the Tour also set up this terrible exchange between a group of old friends sitting in folding chairs and me as I was mid-climb to the top, and very tired.
Them: “Keep going! The Belles Filles are at the top!”
Me: “Look for the plank, right?”
Old guys just hanging out by themselves
LOTS of them. Just there to see what the hubbub’s about. Often reading a newspaper.
What’s the point being at the Tour de France if you can’t get proof? And else are you gonna do when Julian Alaphilippe is suddenly two feet away from you? Leave him be? Don’t be stupid.
At the start of every stage, every rider has to ride up to a big dais on a stage where an emcee is jabbering away in French to a crowd. On the way, they often have to ride along fencing where adorable children beg for autographs and look very sad when a rider goes by without stopping.
Which, in actuality, is surprisingly rare. Most riders stopped, especially if they were among the bigger names. I saw Geraint Thomas, Julian Alaphilippe, Thibaut Pinot, and Peter Sagan — perhaps THE four most popular riders in the 2019 edition of the Tour — all give their time to the kids who wanted their attention, despite being in the throes of one of the most competitive Tours in memory.
Only got anything signed when they essentially shoved a pen in a rider’s hand and moved it for them.
People who will do anything for the Gram
Surprisingly few during the nine stages I saw in 2019, so I’d like to think the world is becoming a better place where people feel less and less compelled to document their every move, even to the potential physical detriment of themselves and others, in hopes of capturing fleeting joy of accruing internet points.
But I also wasn’t in the high mountains like I was in 2014, where Gram-happy fans were a pox.
People who will do anything for a polka-dot hat
Of all the iconic pieces of swag at the Tour de France — the hats, the kits, the flags, the signs — nothing is more sought after than any item with polka-dots on it. The dots represent the jersey given to the rider leading the King of the Mountains classification. More importantly, as far as swag goes, they aren’t flat yellow — which feels sacrilegious to wear — or green or white — which are far too boring.
When the caravane comes by tossing out polka-dot hats (brought to you by the fine people at Leclerc superstores), the barriers are crushed with fans. Better to politely ask someone who got two if you can have their spare.
People who will do anything for a glimpse of AlaPinot
As much as fans interfere with the riders of the Tour de France, and as taxing as it must be to deal with knuckleheads on a daily basis while also trying to stay focused on the unfathomably difficult race at hand, it is refreshing to see world-class athletes commune with the people who adore them.
Before each stage, team buses are typically situated near stomach-high metal fencing where fans might be able to stand within 15 feet of riders as they come off the team bus and mill around. For the biggest heros — the Alaphilippes, or Pinots — even just catching a glimpse of their kits through the photographers and journalists surrounding them is a thrill. After all, could you imagine ever getting so close to Tom Brady or Lionel Messi as they stretched?
For lesser riders, you can even have a conversation. And by “lesser” I don’t mean bottom of the peloton riders. I saw Rigoberto Uran, a pre-Tour yellow jersey contender and second-place finisher in 2017, walk off the Education First bus to a group of Colombian fans who had been chanting his name. EF isn’t having the strongest Tour, granted, but the scene was quiet around the bus compared to the French squads, and Uran stood with his arm up on the fence for a good three or four minutes, chatting and smiling with the people who came just to see him.
Then he popped his helmet on and prepared to put his body through hell.
Unlike locals, creatures exist solely to stand out amongst the scenery. They’re there to be seen — photographers love them, and they love photographers. Whether anybody else gets a kick out of them is another matter, but also entirely besides the point.
Lapinou is a man dressed in a pink bunny costume. Lapinou holds a sign telling you he is Lapinou. Lapinou is the creepiest anthropomorphic bunny since Frank from Donnie Darko.
Zaza and Sasha
Zaza wears a gymnast uniform. Sasha is her brother. You know it’s them because above their camper is an enormous sign that says “ZAZA AND SACHA.” Vehicles in the caravane stop and talk to them on a daily basis.
Tales of this man’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Didi Senft has been a fixture on the Tour since 1993. He’s stuck around long enough to become a mostly welcome sight for fans and riders. He was reportedly going to retire in 2014, but he has continued to attend the Tour, appearing on every stage thus far in 2019.
Bro in far too little clothing
Did you know that people are still busting out Borat mankinis for laughs? In 2019!
Not necessarily a local, but not necessarily looking to be noticed, either, those who add to the color of the Tour de France are perhaps the best, most earnest subset of fans. They’re not trying to stand out, but they shine all the same by making the atmosphere undeniably better.
The Grand Départ in Brussels showed me what cycling fanaticism truly means.
In many ways, Belgium embodies the Tour better than its eponymous nation. France likes to wield the Tour with a subdued sense of duty. Belgium, a country lopped onto France’s head like a brain slug, wields it like the sack of firecrackers that it is. Belgium regularly gets Tour stages, but not regularly enough to get used to the novelty. Saturday in Brussels will be the first Belgian start for the Tour de France since 2012, and the city is filled to the cracks with decorative yellow and green and polka dot nods to the race.
The people came in many varieties — there were the locals at a Flemish bar, a dad who knew Tiesj Benoot, two old ladies drinking beer in lawn chairs just off their curb — but they all wanted to tell you their best Eddy Merckx story, and they were all supremely friendly.
The people who cheer at everyone who rides a bicycle like they’re in the Tour de France
Before every stage, fans can ride the course on their own. And every one gets cheered like they’re Bernard Hinault. I probably heard “Allez Pinot!” directed 10,000 times to people who definitely weren’t Pinot, and it never got old.
The fans who brought every nation’s flag to the Tour
An evolution of cheering everyone who rides a bicycle in the Tour de France is bringing a flag of every country represented in the Tour so that, when you find out where someone is from, you can bust out their flag and shout a former national hero at them, like the German man who got “Jan Ullrich! Jan Ullrich!”
The four fans claimed to be from Belgium, Luxembourg, Uzbekistan, and Romania.
Old woman in a bright green vest who blew kisses at every vehicle that passed by
She was miniscule, appeared to be in her 80s, and walking briskly up a mountain at the time.
Guy who spent 15 minutes blowing up an inflatable lobster
Amateur cyclists, especially geriatrics with calves of coiled steel
A lot of people like to ride their bikes before the Tour de France: some in full kit, some in cargo shorts; some with a tow rope attached around their kid’s bike, some who look and ride like they once hoped to taste Tour glory.
They’re all heroes, especially those who brave the major climbs that the professionals will be taking on later in the day. But none are quite as awe-inspiring as the older set who have faces like your grandma and legs like Pawel Poljanski. They have never gone anywhere except via bicycle, and they are both inspiring and frightening.
Mega cycling legend stuffed in a suit
They will be hauled up on stage to shake hands and be gawked at. They will either appear extremely happy to be there, or extremely uncomfortable. And they will have a look that seems to wonder if perhaps the crowd could love them more.
Bros dominate the Tour landscape, from big groups of bros to intimate groups of bros, across all ages and levels of verve. Sitting around and drinking in a weird place has been a staple of brohood since the beginning of man, making the Tour perhaps the ultimate bro out event.
Bachelor party bros
Soccer is their favorite sport, actually, but the Tour was coming right by and how could you not? Heading to a music festival later.
Old man bros
Sittin’ ‘round a cooler that they hauled up in the trunk. Not into dressing up.
Sittin’ ‘round a cooler that they hauled up in the trunk. Shirtless or wearing a team kit and cycling casquette, most likely.
Bros who fiercely stan one rider
Usually in groups while wearing matching T-shirts and exhibiting personality traits befitting the riders.
- Dumoulin Fan Club: Respectful, demur, cool like the rider himself. Also thoroughly lost, given Dumoulin is rehabbing in another country.
- King Küng Freunde, AKA the KKF: Loyal, pensive, and happy to be here.
- Sagan Team: Won’t stop jumping up and down for one goddamn second.
Bros in a cycling caravan dragging mini kegs of Heineken down the road
Tempting to call them creatures, but their friendship is real and they charm the pants off everyone who stops and talks with them. Plus they make it all the way up a mountain on that contraption.
The hardest of the hardcore drive themselves to every stage and live out of an RV for three weeks. The people residing in them are a combination of the Locals, Color, and Creatures above. But there are some delineations worth discussing.
Perhaps the biggest distinction among the campers is how they take care of their personal stank. If you can afford it, you get a camper with a fully-equipped shower in it, in which you case you’re probably also the type who will be rolling out an incredible spread of red wine, paté, and fine cheeses on a card table before every stage.
If you can’t afford it, you’re showering at campsites when you can find them, or, in a pinch, rinsing off in a nearby body of water. Your spread will look more like a standard sporting-event fare of salty snacks eaten on top of a cooler, but you will still have a bottle of red wine because you’re in France, for God’s sake.
RVs traveling in packs of three or more are particularly impressive because that means sometimes spending hours the night before a stage hunting for the perfect spot big enough to accommodate everyone. Doing that every night for three weeks represents a level of dedication to friendship that is both touching and ill-advised.
Lots of people bring their dogs to the Tour de France. They are usually better behaved than their humans, and they are all good.
People need to run and document this massive three-week enterprise. They walk around with badges and are only semi-sure how anything is supposed to work.
Lots of them! Enough to be their own subspecies. Briefly, we have:
- Good cops (Will help you cross the course)
- Bad cops (Is upset you asked to cross the course)
- Clueless cops (Possibly from out of town, not sure where the course is)
- Cops who are taking their jobs way too seriously (Will point you to the 30-minute drive you’re supposed to take to cross the course)
- Cops who don’t have nearly enough to do (Will help you cross the course, but first wants to hear about your life for 30 minutes)
- Cops who probably aren’t taking their jobs seriously enough (Too busy trying to get a polka-dot hat to help you cross the course)
People with badges and green polos
Tour pro tip: Show up to the course with a yellow lanyard and a plain green polo, and you’ll have free reign over the Tour de France. On race day, no one is more respected than the person who you think looks official.
Simultaneously calling the race for fans at the finish line, while also keeping the atmosphere FUN and ENERGETIC and just, real quick, double checking that everyone is having FUN even though the riders are two hours away still. Incomprehensible except when he’s pronouncing every rider’s name like there’s a period between each syllable, so that Thibaut Pinot is actually TEE. BO. PEE. NO.
Also get yellow lanyards. Allowed to wander in the fence sometimes. Have it pretty good, actually.