Le Village Départ
There’s a place at the Tour de France where you can eat a waffle on a stick, watch a mime (clad in a Tour de France helmet), ride a Penny-farthing, and stand among past Tour riders and winners (and maybe even the Prince of Monaco). Is it the pro cycling version of Narnia? Sort of. It’s Le Village Départ!
Just like the rider sign-on ceremony and the area for team buses to park, the Village Départ is a piece of the start zone of every stage. To get in, no need to walk through a wardrobe. You just need to have a certain credential, and if you’re one of those people, you know just how lucky you are. Especially if you happen to be working the entire three weeks, and miss having a familiar place as you schlep from one hotel to the next.
With a different start and finish town every day, the nomadic nature of the Tour can be a bit dizzying, and the Village offers a bit of respite from the uncertainty that, from the media side, the other race elements can have. How big will team parking be? Will fans be allowed in close to the riders, and if so, will we be able to move around enough to take photos quickly and get down to rider sign-on? How far will the start be from media parking?
So what is the Village, exactly? Hard to say, but very close to heaven. More specifically, it’s like the local coffee shop of the Tour, one with a 100-year history that’s touted from the moment you enter. It’s a place where riders can go before the start to have a coffee and read the newspaper. Where stage winners from Tours past will sit around tables, chat, and watch the race on the big-screen TV. Where VIPs, and sponsors of the different teams, can sit in the shade and relax. Where members of the world media seize the opportunity for interviews, and to catch up with colleagues.
There’s often entertainment: live bands, mini-bicycle races, a live feed of the race, and someone riding a unicycle. You can have your photo taken on a mock version of the podium, or browse the many Tour de France-branded clothing items.
The first time I entered the Village, I immediately noticed how great it smelled. And when I found Le Marché des douceurs, I understood why. It’s the place where there are freshly made waffles, and where you’ll also find an assortment of cookies, breads, and crêpes. Not too far away is Le Marché du fruit, with baskets of fresh apricots, oranges, apples and plums or freshly made fruit salad. There’s also a stand that showcases traditional foods of the region, and another where you can taste wine. And of course, a big espresso stand.
Along with food, shade, and a great view of the race via a huge TV monitor, the Village also showcases an historical component of the Tour. Hands down, my favorite is the display of jerseys from past riders, mostly overall and stage winners, going back as far as the 1950s. Not only is it interesting to see how jerseys changed through the years, from wool with the pockets in the front to synthetics with the pockets in the back, but also to have a piece of 100 years of race history so up close and personal. They even brought a few bikes.
Just like the mountain stage superfans or seeing the team buses amass for the first time, the Village is an element of the Tour de France that’s quickly topped my list of favorite things I never knew to expect.
So if you’re at the Tour this year, you know where to find me.