Driving the Tour de France: A wild, weary, sometimes illegal and fun journey

Beyond the starting field of 198 cyclists, the moving caravan that is the Tour de France includes thousands of cars, trucks, motorhomes, motorcycles, team buses and wacky sponsors’ vehicles, some of which defy description.

Press sticker, 2011 Tour de France. Image © James Raia

As one of the race publicist’s said early in the 2011 race (and in only the way a French person can say it when they speak English): “We didn’t think it would be possible to have 4,000 vehicles everyday following what 200 cyclists do.”

In addition to about five vehicles per team, the Tour de France has 1,200 cars registered with media credentials and another 1,200 VIP, race officials, sponsors and technicians’ vehicles.

During the 2011 event, there were 47 officers of the Republican Guard and 13 other policemen at the end of each stage at the media center. Throughout the duration of the Tour de France, 14,000 French police (gendarmes) will be on the route as well as another 9,000 different police jurisdictions’ officers and security personnel.

They all come and go daily among the vehicles that transfer village to city and mostly by the rules of the road, although some times when the rules are broken stretched there’s leniency if the infraction’s been committed by someone driving an official race vehicle.

But sometimes drivers of official Tour de France vehicles also make their own rules. The first overt example I noticed during the 2001 Tour de France was en route from Nantes to the start and finish of the team time trial.

Traffic was re-routed on the outskirts of the small finishing village several miles and it met the the normal weekend traffic at an omnipresent French toll booth during stage 2.

The drivers of several team and support vehicles got tired of waiting and decided move ahead on the right shoulder and while just barely squeezing past the stopped slow lane of traffic.

Waiting in the media caravan area, 2006 Tour de France Image © Bruce Aldrich

I followed as about the fifth vehicle did something completely wrong and that likely would have resulted in severe consequences in the United States. Yet with strength in numbers, we plowed through a mile of backed-up traffic I’m not sure ever made it to the front of their respective toll booth lines.

But the driver of the lead car in our processional still wasn’t pleased. As he got closer, the driver made a 90-degree turn right into traffic, with cars parting for some strange reason, allowing the driver to get to the front of a just-opened toll booth lane.

The rest of us followed because we could and also, at least for me, because it made up for all the crummy stuff other drivers have done to me at the Tour de France.

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