Are you considering a Tour de France cycling tour for 2023?
Wondering whether to go DIY or opt for a Tour de France tour package?
Or perhaps you’re just intrigued as to what it takes to plan a trip to the world’s biggest cycling event?
This interview with Clément Cicuto, Sports Tours International’s General Manager for Europe, digs into the detail of planning the best Tour de France cycling tours.
Clément has been organising Tour de France holidays for Sports Tours International since 2011. His vast experience of the event means he has a ton of fascinating insights to share on everything from how to pick the best hotel for the stages you want to see, to what being a premium Tour de France tour operator means in practice.
1. Why are Tour de France cycling tours so special?
The Tour de France is the world’s most famous bike race and watching it live is a magical experience. There’s simply nothing like seeing the icons of the sport at a summit finish or on the streets of Paris, in real life.
Of course there are lots of ways you can watch the spectacle, but if you want a really special experience of the Tour (the kind of unique experiences that are normally reserved for the pros), you need to go with an official Tour de France operator. I explain more about official operators below.
1.1 Experience the tour like a pro
One of my favourite memories of a recent Tour de France trip was in 2015. We arrived at the mountain top finish and, as usual, it was a tiny area full of people and buses.
Our clients were cycling to the finish that day; we saw them come over the finish line, take photos on the podium and then be directed to the special hospitality area amongst all the dignitaries and sponsors, just hours before the peloton arrived. When we went to the buses, ours was parked amidst all the team buses, bikes and riders.
Our clients were so happy to be able to speak with the pros and get some really special photos – you don’t get closer to the action than that!
1.2 Once-in-a-lifetime experiences
There’s nothing like the feeling of the buzz on the coach at the end of the day, after everyone’s had a really unique and special experience. It’s an honour to be providing these outstanding experiences to our clients.
2. What kind of Tour de France bike tours do you run?
We offer Tour de France official tours and we try to cover all of the key stages of the Tour de France each year. We offer both spectator trips and trips where you can ride and watch.
You can find all of our trips on our website, here but in summary, for our Tour de France bike tours in 2023:
2.1 Grand Depart
For the first time in tour’s history, the Grand Depart in 2023 will be held in the vibrant Basque country. The Spanish side of the border is an area with a rich cycling tradition, incredible scenery, picturesque villages, and passionate supporters. Sports Tours International offer a range of options, from VIP hospitality for the race start and the opportunity to ride stage one before the pros. Check out the four-night spectator tour – sporting weekends don’t get much better.
2.2 Basque Country
Following on from the Grand Depart, the show gets on the road with a loop stage, the second stage takes place entirely within the borders of the Basque Country located on the northern Atlantic coast, near the border of France, featuring a distinctive geographic and cultural landscape. It’s a unique paradise for cyclists to ride through.
I think the Pyrenees mountain stages this year will be really exciting – these will be the first stages back in France and they offer two or three really interesting stages for the climbers. We’ve got hospitality access for each stage in the Pyrenees, so we can help you see the best of the race!
Our French Alps ride and watch trips are always really popular and this year is no exception. Often those that are coming to the Tour de France just once are most focused on going to where the main action is – and that’s often the Alps.
We’ve got a wide range of trips, from 3 nights to 10 nights, so you’ve got the chance to take in all four Alpine stages (plus stage 19 in the Jura and stage 20 through the Vosges) if you want!
This year these mountain stages fall in the final week of the race, so tensions are sure to be high.
We offer a Paris one day hospitality ticket and a trip that makes a weekend out of it (details here). Surely every serious Tour de France fan has to experience the party and celebration that is the Tour de France in Paris at least once in their lives?!
Best make it 2023 that you catch the Tour in Paris, since it won’t finish here in 2024; Paris is busy hosting the Olympics so in 2024, the Tour will finish in Nice.
2.6 Bespoke and custom getaways to the Tour de France
And finally, we also offer bespoke experiences – whether for a small group or 100 people.
Usually groups come to us knowing when they’d like to go and how many people the trip is for.
We’ll come up with an outline for what we can suggest. That might include a stage in an official Tour de France car, a Tour de France helicopter experience, access to the start village and stage finish or VIP finish hospitality on the Champs Élysées.
We can also create special packages that put together different trips and experiences. There are some great options for those that aren’t riding too.
You can find full information about each trip on our website.
3. What does it mean to be an official Tour Operator of the Tour de France?
There are six official Tour de France Approved Operators. Of these only three are Premium Operators which means Sports Tours International gets the first choice for experiences for our clients.
3.1 Approved Operators
We often find there’s quite a lot of confusion about what being an approved operator means.
The answer is that the six Approved Operators get priority access to Tour de France experiences that non-Approved operators can’t get.
Approved Operators can book VIP hospitality areas at the stage starts, finishes, and along the racecourse.
An example is the Izoard VIP access area. It’s usually within 200m of the finish and centres around big food and drink trucks parked in a great spot with a VIP viewing area. There will also be a terrace, tables, chairs, free food, beer, champagne – and of course a TV to follow the race. Our clients will be mixing with the sponsors, dignitaries and organisers.
There are also other hospitality experiences such as a high quality four course meal with wine, with the professional riders passing within the last five kilometres of the stage.
Riding closed roads
Approved Operators can also get permission to ride on the race route ahead of the pros when the road is closed to the general public and cross the finish line.
We also offer clients the experience of meeting the Tour de France organisers at the Flamme Rouge marker, with 1 kilometre before the finish. They then escort us with the official car across the finish line just three hours or so before the pro race crosses.
Podium photos and other extras
Approved Operators can receive permission to take photos on the official podium.
There are also additional extras such as the option to ride in the Tour de France official car.
Our clients often tell us that these experiences make their trip unforgettable.
They mean that our clients can do a lot more with their day – for example they don’t need to get to the race four hours early to make sure they can get a spot by the barriers.
It also means they’re not caught out by last minute changes to the road closures. For example when the police in Tignes made a last minute decision to close the road the night before, it sadly meant many people were caught out – but not guests with an Approved Operator.
3.2 Premium Approved Operators
Of the six Approved Operators, only three are Premium Approved Operators – and we are one of them.
This means we have unlimited access, and first call on the experiences mentioned above.
For example if there are a limited number of spaces at the hospitality area at a summit finish, like Alpe d’Huez that’s always really popular, we get first call on the places; this means our clients don’t miss out on the best bits of the Tour.
So if we get a request for a bespoke trip for 20 cyclists that want to be at the top of Alpe d’Huez on race day, our premium status means that we should be able to accommodate that. In contrast, the non-premium operators might get given less tickets to an experience or be asked to pick a different stage finish. The Premium Operators get priority.
3.3 Weekly contact with ASO
During the ten months between October and the start of the Tour de France, we have weekly contact with ASO to discuss arrangements for the Tour. Sometimes it’s group briefing calls, sometimes it’s calls with our contacts directly.
They are really helpful in providing huge amounts of detailed information that we need to make sure our trips run smoothly for our clients. For example which routes we should take to the Tour de France hospitality areas, exactly where the premium operator parking is at the finishes, maps and addresses.
They also suggest things that could be a great experience for our clients and help us ensure our clients have a more amazing experience than they expected.
4. What makes your Tour de France cycling holidays special?
We work really hard to make sure we offer the best tour de France cycling tours on the market. Our motto is “our experience makes yours” and we really believe this is true.
Our staff have a huge amount of combined knowledge and experience of the Tour de France – well over 50 years experience if you combine it together! It’s not just the hosts and guides our clients meet, but the people that our clients don’t always see – people like me!
I have been planning Tour de France trips for Sports Tours for twelve years now and in total Sports Tours have been running Tour de France tour experiences for over twenty years (that’s twenty years of feedback to hone what we offer!).
I think this really makes a difference in the end product. The route changes each year and it’s only because of my and my team’s personal knowledge of the logistics for the Tour and connections that we can get the best accommodation and experiences for our guests.
The fact that we’re based in France and speak the language means we can have a very close relationship with the organisers and hotel owner. We have our own local knowledge of how things work in France that can really make the difference.
Finally, our guides are all passionate cyclists who love the Tour and looking after our guests. They make our guest experience unforgettable and deliver a first class service.
We think we have the best logistics out there – we’ve got a fleet of minibuses and vehicles with bike racks and trailers, driven by French people that know their country and the race extremely well.
4.3 Premium Operators
I’ve said a lot about the benefits this status has for our clients, so I won’t repeat that. However it does give us flexibility to ensure we can increase our numbers even when other operators have sold out their trips.
We try and incorporate each of the different VIP experiences described above within one of the four day three night Tour de France tour packages. Usually it will be a different experience each day.
4.4 Larger numbers brings benefits for our clients
Every year we bring more than 500 clients to the Tour de France. We can do this because we’re Premium Operators and because our knowledge and planning means we can flex our team to ensure we still deliver the highest quality, unique experiences.
One of the reasons that it’s good for our clients that we have lots of clients, is that it means we can afford that Premium Operator access that provides the unique experiences. We can also justify services that other operators with less clients can offer. For example we can have more guides on the road with different speed riding groups. Or if we know we have a group of Spanish cyclists we’ll make sure we have a Spanish host.
We have more staff so we can be more flexible, for example if someone wants to spectate instead of ride or ride a longer or shorter route.
Finally, our clients tell us that they love the opportunity we provide them to meet other cycling fans from all over the world during their trip. The diversity of the countries our clients have come from makes for lots of interesting conversations and sometimes even lifelong new friends!
4.5 Based in the UK
We’re based in the UK, with an office in France and Ireland, and have all the necessary licences to operate in France, which many of our clients find reassuring.
We offer ABTA bonding too, just in case things go wrong. For example our clients won’t lose their money if the event doesn’t take place for some reason.
Take a look at all of our Tour de France trips on our website.
5. How does your Tour de France trip planning process work?
Planning our Tour de France bicycle tours is always a challenge because the route is different every year.
The upside for our clients is that it means they can book a trip with us every year and it will always be unique.
5.1 Finding the hotels
The first step in our planning process is to find the perfect hotels for our trips.
This is one of the most complicated areas to sort out because we can’t wait for the course to be announced to book the accommodation. If we did that, it would be too late and all the best places would have gone!
So we have to work on rumours of where the route will go next year. We often have to take some risks and book hotels without having certainty on the route. It can be a bit stressful, but it’s mitigated by our extensive experience of planning these trips and we’ve never gone wrong yet.
We get calls ahead of time from our friends on the ground – for example our local French guides, hotel partners and contacts at tourist offices in the host towns. They tend to have the best knowledge about what’s likely to happen with the route and this means we can book the best accommodation before everyone else!
There’s more information on what we look for in our hotels, below.
Once we’ve sorted out the hotels, we consider what hospitality and experiences we can build into the trip to ensure it’s really special for our clients.
We plan the best daily rides and climbs our cyclists can do to get to the Tour de France event. We flex these depending on our clients’ level of experience and fitness. We also plan unique activities for when it’s the Tour’s rest days.
Some clients ride, some don’t. If they ride, it’s up to them how far they go as we can accommodate non-riders in our support vehicles. Often it’s between 10 and 100km each day, but it’s up to them. We always have e-bikes available too so they can always jump on an e-bike if they’re not as fit as they thought! Our mechanics are always on hand to help with any bike problems.
5.3 Transport and suppliers
After accommodation, it’s time to arrange all the logistics, transport and transfers.
We work with suppliers like bike rental companies, we book restaurants and plan Tour de France merchandising for our clients.
We also prepare a detailed staffing plan to ensure we’ve got the best team on hand throughout each trip.
With these things in place we then create a detailed itinerary. The version clients see on our website is the brief version of the itinerary. We send a really detailed version to our clients about three weeks before the trip.
5.5 Working hand in hand with ASO
Everything we do is against the backdrop of the weekly calls and meetings we have with ASO. These start in October when the route is announced and continue all the way to the Tour itself. We have an excellent relationship with them and this means we can ensure the experiences we offer are the best, that the transport is slick and our itineraries create a unique trip our clients will remember forever.
6. How do you choose the hotels for your Tour de France holidays?
Picking the right hotels is key to the success of our trips.
6.1 Location, location, location
We look for a central location compared to the Tour de France route. This avoids our clients having to check in and out of a new hotel every day, which is not very relaxing and it’s very time consuming.
We also look for hotels that are accessible from an international airport, have lots to see around them, great views and good guided ride options.
6.2 Good quality
Our ideal hotels are good quality 3 or 4 stars with a secure room for the bikes. We aim to choose hotels that are family run as we find they offer a more authentic experience. The owners also often have a better understanding of what we need in terms of food and they’re great at connecting with our clients.
We also make sure our hotels offer an excellent breakfast and evening meal. In the morning it’s important for getting a busy day off on the right note and in the evening it’s got to be somewhere that’s good for a celebration!
6.4 Pro teams
Sometimes we are able to book our clients into the same hotels as a Tour de France pro team, which is really exciting.
We’re always on the lookout for where the pros will be staying and sometimes we get tips from the hotel owners that they’re going to get a pro team. Also in some towns we know which teams were allocated which hotels the previous time the Tour visited and usually they get allocated the same hotels again. It’s one of the benefits of booking with us – that we are so familiar with the history of the Tour and use this to maximise our clients’ experience.
Likewise, everyone always loves the Mercure Hotel we stay at the Arc de Triomphe. It’s 200m from the Tour de France which is perfect.
7. How to go to the Tour de France: DIY versus a Tour de France package trip?
It can be tempting to plan your own Tour de France cycling trip. That can work well if you’re happy to just watch a stage and don’t mind making getting there, waiting, watching and going home the sole focus for your day.
However if you’re looking to get more from this great annual sporting event, an organised Tour de France trip is the way to get the perfect trip.
There are so many things that you can do on a tour with an Approved Tour de France Operator that you can’t do alone. It’s the things I mentioned above, things like having accreditation to ride the race route on closed roads, getting access to VIP areas and hospitality, having everything planned with the right information from the organiser which you can’t find online and having great hotels that are well-placed for the route.
A trip might only be three nights away in July, but you’re getting the benefit of a year’s worth of planning – and our twenty years of experience before that!
8. Where can people find more information?
You can get more information about Sports Tours’ many Tour de France cycling trips on their website.
Clément and the team would also be very happy to answer any questions – just contact them at +44 (0)161 703 8161 or email@example.com.
A huge thank you to Clément for sharing such an insightful behind the scenes look at what goes into planning a Tour de France trip.
Have you been on a Tour de France bike tour?
If you’ve been to France to spectate the Tour de France, let us know how it went in the comments below!
For those coming into France by plane, you might find this website useful – it shares an overview of all flight routes worldwide.
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