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The complete guide to the Tour de France

PUBLISHED: 14:06 27 April 2018

Guide to the Tour de France © B. Bade / ASO

Guide to the Tour de France © B. Bade / ASO

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Discover the route of the 2018 Tour de France, the best places to cheer on the peloton and the history of the world’s most famous cycle race

Tour de France 2018 route © ASOTour de France 2018 route © ASO

THE 2018 TOUR DE FRANCE ROUTE

Unveiled last October, the official 2018 Tour de France route takes place almost entirely in France (apart from a 15km detour into Spain during stage 16). Covering a total distance of 3,329 kilometres, the route comprises of eight flat stages, five hilly stages, six mountain stages and two time trials, one individual and one team trial. 

This year’s Grand Départ will begin in Noirmoutier-en-l'Île, a town on the island of Noirmoutier just off the Vendée coast, with a flat race across to Fontenay-le-Comte. The race stays in Vendée for the next two stages, including a team trial, before heading north into Brittany and then east into Pays-de-la-Loire, Normandy and Hauts-de-France where the tricky cobbled sections of the Paris-Roubaix race are waiting to catch the cyclists out. The race then heads into the Alps for a couple of stages, before moving east throuh the Massif Central and the Occitanie region before it's back into the mountains, this time the Pyrénées. Similarly to the 2017 Tour, there will be an individual time trial on the penultimate day, this time between Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle and Espelette, before it's off to Paris for the traditional finale along the Champs-Élysées. 

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Plage des Dames, Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile © Altitude Drone/GettyImagePlage des Dames, Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile © Altitude Drone/GettyImage

BEST PLACES TO WATCH THE TOUR DE FRANCE

Noirmoutier-en-l'Île

Half a mile off the coast of Vendée, the small island of Noirmoutier will be hosting the 2018 Grand Départ on 7 July. It's a flat stage and the cyclists will make their way from Noirmoutier-en-l'Île across the island and then over the bridge to mainland France, finishing 189km later in Fontenay-le-Comte. If you can, head to the island a fes days early to you can hop on your own bike and explore its sandy beaches, harbour, salt marshes and pine forests – you could even try the Passage le Gois across to Vendée, make sure you time it right through, it is covered by the tide twice a day.

Lorient

Probably most famous for the Interceltique festival it hosts every August, Lorient is a bustling port town in Morbihan, a former naval base and former headquarters of the French East India Company. The fifth stage of the 2018 Tour de France starts in Lorient on 11 July and races along the Brittany coast, up some fairly steep hills, and finishes in Quimper 203km later. 

Le Grand-Bornand

The charming Alpine village of Le Grand-Bornand welcomes the riders at the end of stage 10 on 17 July, the first mountain stage of Le Tour and a gruelling climb from Annecy. Le Grand-Bornand is a popular family-friendly ski resort but has maintained its traditional charm with picture-perfect wodden chalets, a market square and church and, in summer, is surrounded by lush green mountainside pastures.

Carcassonne

One of the most visited attractions in France, the walled cité of Carcassonne in Aude looks like it has been take straight from a fairy tale with its winding streets, drawbridge, ramparts and towers. It will be a welcome sight for the cyclists after a tough climb up the Pic de Nore during stage 15, even more so with the prospect of a rest day in Carcassonne on 23 July. They then leave Carcassonne the following day as the Tour heads off into the Pyrénées.

Espelette

The Tour de France will be passing through the Basque region of France for the first time in 12 years, including the town of Espelette which is where the individual time trial finished on the penultimate day of the race. Espelette is famous for its peppers, called the piment d'Espelette, and these red peppers adorn the facades of the traditional white Basque houses in the summer when they are hung out to dry.

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Tour de France 1936 © Agence Rol [Public domain] via Wikimedia CommonsTour de France 1936 © Agence Rol [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

HISTORY OF THE TOUR DE FRANCE

The first Tour de France

At just after 3pm on 1 July 1903, 60 cyclists lined up in Montgeron to the south-east of Paris to embark on the first Tour de France. The cyclists rode through the night for 467 kilometres to complete the epic first stage to Lyon. When Maurice Garin and Émile Pagie crossed the line the next morning after 18 hours of cycling only one minute separated them. This exciting climax to the first-ever stage would ensure the Tour’s lasting popularity.

Garin won two more of the six stages and took the Tour title by almost three hours, a margin that still hasn’t been beaten. Despite the start being delayed by two weeks due to a lack of interest among cyclists, 20,000 fans turned out to cheer Garin into the Paris Vélodrome on 18 July. Only 20 other riders completed the race.

The development of Le Tour

For L’Auto, the magazine that had organised and promoted the race, and its editor Henri Desgrange, the race had been a huge success and would help to reverse its falling circulation. By 1933 sales had increased 40-fold to more than 800,000. A year later Desgrange’s instinct was to call the whole thing off. The Tour had become a monster. Such was the devotion of fans to their chosen riders that cheating was rife.

In the early days the thinking had been that the Tour should as far as possible follow the outline of France, which meant conquering the Alps and the Pyrénées. So in a move that could have put an end to the Tour, Desgrange gambled in 1910 on organising a stage from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Bayonne in the Pyrénées that would include the Col de Tourmalet (2,115 metres).

 

Cycling through the Alps during the 2014 Tour de France © ASO/B.BadeCycling through the Alps during the 2014 Tour de France © ASO/B.Bade

Octave Lapize, riding a gearless bike, was first over the Col du Tourmalet, despite having to get off and push at one point, and he went on to win the stage and the Tour. Since then the col has been included 79 times. The massive Col du Galibier in the Alps (2,645 metres) followed a year later.

It was during the 1919 Tour, the first after four years of war that the yellow jersey for the leader in the general classification was awarded for the first time.

Gradually the race became more professional and individual riders known as tourists-routiers were replaced by trade-sponsored teams. However, the latter were banned in 1930 because of fears that technological advances were giving them an unfair advantage, so riders had to compete in national teams. The ban remained until 1962.

Le Tour during the two World Wars

During the slaughter of World War I there had been no question of holding the Tour. In World War II the occupying Germans were keen that things continued as normal, but L’Auto refused requests to hold the Tour.

The Tour returned in 1947 after a seven-year absence, but L’Auto lost the rights to run it because France’s first post-war leader, General Charles de Gaulle, believed the magazine had collaborated with the Germans. Rights were eventually granted to the Amaury Sport Organisation, which still runs the event.

The Tour de France today

The Tour continues to grow in importance and has become a worldwide phenomenon. The race is now covered by 2,000 journalists and is televised in 190 countries, of which 60 transmit live coverage. Inevitably such a high profile attracts those with a point to make.

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