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Tour de France fans follow their heroes

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Media captionMeet Freddie Parker, a fan of Andy Schleck, who has spent more than $32,000 to follow this year's tour

The Tour de France remains one of few global sporting events that you can attend for nothing - and stand close enough to the competitors to smell their sweat as they pass.

With nearly 3,500km (2,175 miles) of open road available, there's no shortage of space to set up your picnic table and await not just the race, but also the carnival of sponsors' floats that precedes it.

Traditionally, cycling fans have made their own way, planning their trip according to their budget and transport, from bicycle touring to motor homes. Some have even attempted to hitch-hike their way around the race on as little as a euro a day.

Finding accommodation in or near locations already swamped with the race entourage can require planning and reserving, as far in advance as the preceding October, when the race route is announced.

Getting the cheapest prices on travel also involves being willing and able to pounce as soon as journeys become available, many months in advance.

For a growing number of fans travelling from Anglophone countries, these logistical challenges, combined with the language barrier, have provided specialist companies with plenty of opportunity to capitalise on the three-week event.

'Complex' logistics

With 20 years' experience running cycling trips, Sports Tours International claims to be one of the biggest players in the market.

Image caption Sports Tours International is one of the firms offering Tour de France packages

Across the three weeks of the Tour, it offers packages ranging from a 12-day, £2,000 trip, covering the last 10 or 11 days of the race, to two-night coach trips to Paris for the final weekend, costing from £349.

The numbers can vary from hundreds in the opening week to "thousands" in the climactic final week. A key component for about half of all customers is being able to bring their own bike and ride sections of the race route, as well as riding to find the prime spot to see the race.

"On stages, you don't want to be at the start and finish, you want to be on the most exciting mountain, where you have access to the best vantage point. Some of the people ride from the hotel, others might take the coach and walk, or a mixture of the three," says Brendan Fox, Sports Tours International's head of commercial operations.

"We might spend three or four nights in the same hotel, which has access to many stages, and then move on. Logistically, it is quite complex."

Thanks to the relationships the company has developed with hoteliers, it can sometimes get priority in the fight for the last remaining rooms in a town welcoming Le Tour.

Up close and personal

At every stage start and finish, you can find fans massed around the team vehicles, hoping for a glimpse of their favourite riders, the chance of an autograph or a piece of team merchandise, caps and water bottles being immensely popular. Some will even hunt out the team hotels in the evening, in the hope of meeting their heroes.

As Chris Froome's Team Sky discovered when they tried putting an opaque screen around the riders' warm-up area in 2010, fans see the freedom to watch and engage with the riders as they prepare as central to cycling's appeal, not an aspect that can be dictated to them by the teams.

Image caption Cycling fans are keen to get as close as possible to their idols

At the team bus in Nice, several hours before the stage began, there was already a crowd of fans waiting for the riders, with a transparent screen in place only at one end of the preparation area.

Trek Travel originated in 2003, as part of manufacturer Trek Bicycle, the firm that sponsored now-disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong at the height of his popularity.

It was spun off as a separate business in 2006. It derives its cachet from being an official partner of the event and being able to guarantee access to Trek-sponsored teams and riders.

The predominantly American group we met in Nice relished the opportunity to explore the Radio Shack Leopard Trek bus, talk with team staff and meet star riders including the 2010 winner, Andy Schleck, at the team's hotel.

This comes at a hefty premium, with its clientele paying $7,499 (£5,000) for a six-day itinerary based around the opening four stages of the race. A ride in a team vehicle costs an additional $1,000.

For some of the group, the trip was a one-off for various reasons: a birthday present; a father-and-son bonding opportunity; a significant anniversary celebration.

Lifelong ambition

Freddy Parker, an aircraft mechanic from California, had taken advantage of unused home equity credit to fund his three-week "trip of a lifetime" to see the whole race. A bike race fan since 1987, his being at the Tour represented a lifetime ambition.

Image caption Trek Travel guests got to see the new Trek Madone team bike during a meet and greet with Radio Shack Leopard Trek team officials

"From where I'm from in Nicaragua, Central America, I don't think many people get to come here and see this, something special, especially being its 100th edition," he says.

As he pressed against the barriers to get the best view and photo of the riders as they hurtled past, his emotions were the same as any other spectator along the route of cycling's biggest event.

"Just being here, seeing the riders, the race - even if it's for a few seconds - being in the same town and same locations, that's the exciting part for me."

But few will make the financial commitment he has made to follow the entire race. "So far it's cost me $32,000 (£21,000), not including expenses," he admits.

Watching Freddy as he explored the team bus and met his favourite rider, Andy Schleck, the price seemed the furthest thing from his mind. He seemed lost in the moment and as excited as the children ahead of him in the line to get a signed cap and a photo with Schleck.

Over dinner, he talked with evident emotion about how much being able to speak to Schleck and wish him luck in the race meant to him, as someone who had dreamt of a career as a professional. The story was one he said he would remember for the rest of his life and one he was certain to share with friends and family.

For some, the financial cost of such a moment of happiness seems well worth paying. And for the millions who will joyfully line the route throughout July, the spectacle of the Tour de France passing remains remarkably free to watch, as it has done throughout the preceding 99 editions.

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