Tour de France: My first time at the greatest show on earth

Rachel Jary recounts being at the opening stage of the Tour and it was a spectacular start in Florence

If you are working on the Tour de France and have a blue sticker on your car from the race organisers, it permits you to drive to the finish on the race route ahead of the peloton. This blue sticker is like a golden ticket: police let you through road blocks, parking restrictions no longer apply, crowds cheer for your car because they know it’s part of the Tour circus. Above all, the blue sticker allows a front row seat to see the greatest show on earth.

The opening stage to the 2024 Tour de France was always going to be iconic. Florence with its history, mesmerising architecture and romantic Italian charm is famous for a reason – but there’s never been anything like Florence when the Tour came to town.

The night before the race began, I walked the cobbled streets that weave a map through the city. The basilicas which loom high and proud in Florence were illuminated by street lights, so neat and perfect that it felt as if they could be made of paper, with windows and doors painted on by an artist’s steady hand. There was anticipation in the air that night, with yellow flags strewn on balconies and signs for the race route popping out in contrast to Florence’s usual dusty orange hues. The excitement was building, but there was still a sense of calm. The next day, everything changed when the race arrived.

The blue sticker allowed us to drive through the centre of Florence a few minutes before the official start was given and I could scarcely believe the gravity of what I saw. Crowds of people going back five rows cheered for the bike race, people lent out of windows and shouted as the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella stood stoically above the chaos, a reminder of this city’s place in our history – the birthplace of the Renaissance. We drove through and the faces of the Italian tifosi were pictures of animated joy – they’d all come out for the spectacle, and they were part of making it too. A Grand Départ in Italy? Bellissimo.

The crowds didn’t stop when we left the city. Every house along the route had yellow touches in honour of the race, some fans sat outside with picnics, some sweated up climbs riding bikes to find the best vantage point to wait for the peloton. Young and old, the Tour welcomed everyone, sprinkling her yellow sunshine on Tuscany.

We played music in the car and wound our windows down, tasting the muggy air as we flew through the Apennine Mountains, weaving through expansive views of the rolling green hills dotted with agriturismos. The smooth tarmac kicked up and down in making it a brutally testing stage for the bike riders, but we almost forgot to think about that. The Tour is about more than just the people who ride it.

It’s a celebration of cycling and a beacon of light in a world that can often seem heavy with hardship. An opportunity for all – cycling fans or not – to come together and cheer for an event that simply transcends sport. From the lady who waved from her balcony, to the child who got thrown a bottle from a bike rider, to the British journalists who drove through the countryside singing along to pop songs, we all experienced our own little bit of magic in the world’s best bike race. Now I’ve seen it for myself, I can say with the truest meaning: Vive le Tour de France.

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