COL D'AZET, FRANCE
Imagine the world's largest tailgate party. But replace acres of asphalt with ribbons of steep switchbacks that snake their way up the Pyrenees mountains. Substitute blood sausage for burgers, and homemade wine for beer. Repeat daily, for up to one week. Garnish with just a pinch of cycling and you have, roughly, the recipe for what is one of the world's most watched sporting events.
The Tour de France featured its most taxing stage Sunday, a six-mountain pass that offered rival cyclists their last chance to pare down Lance Armstrong's commanding lead.
But for the hundreds of thousands of fans that lined the route, the thrilling race amounted to just a 30-second window to watch their favorite spandexed athlete pedal by. For these fans - to paraphrase Armstrong's bestselling book - it's not just about the cycling.
Rather, the hordes of French who travel hundreds of miles and endure parking nightmares do so because of the joie de vivre that permeates the roadside.
"The main thing is the conviviality," says Christophe Rabeuf, as he sits at a picnic table preparing to share a meal with his weekend neighbors, two couples parked next to him. "The atmosphere is fantastic."
Mr. Rabeuf, an engineer from the Atlantic coastal town of Nantes, had found a place to pitch his tent - a shady spot just off the road - Saturday morning. Within minutes, he and his wife had struck up a conversation with other fans nearby. By Sunday lunch, he was eating a neighbor's homemade blood sausage and setting up a generator that would power his portable TV.
"Everybody chips in with something," says Marie Paule Poloni, the sausage maker.
Veterans of the Tour's mountain stages come both early and well-prepared. To get a parking spot on a hairpin bend, where sharper gradients slow riders down for a better look, some families arrived last Monday.
Once established, they stayed put, which meant carrying with them everything they would need for a week. "We came well equipped," says Rabeuf, pointing to his tent, his well-stocked coolers, his generator, his TV (complete with remote control) and a fan. Not to mention the picnic chairs and tables, at which he and his new friends were sitting.
"But then, we are not novices," added René Guittard, a retired truck driver. "My wife and I have been doing this for 15 years."
The Tour is a national event in which every French citizen shares. Grannies sit glued to their TVs for the three-week, 2,250-mile race, and stage results are front-page news.
No particular interest in cycling seems to be required. "It's the Tour and I love it," says Marie Claude Abba, as she basks in the sun in front of her camper, knitting a white cardigan for her fifth grandchild. "I don't mind who wins, even if it's a foreigner. I'm just a Tour addict."
Mrs. Abba, together with her family and small dog, selected their pitch last Wednesday. Since then, the menfolk have been fishing and trying to mend a motorcycle, while she has been relaxing on a daybed by the side of the road, "doing some crochet, sorting out beads, watching people go by," she says.
"What I love is the atmosphere," she adds. "Everyone has a word with you, everyone is in a good mood. We have all left our troubles at home."
For other spectators, the race itself is of more concern. They paint the road with the names of their favorite riders, hang banners to advertise their teams, and take a keen interest in who is where in the pack.
"I am happy to be here to see the greatest Tour de France rider in history up close," says Laurent de Fayard, a lavender farmer who had driven 300 miles to get here. He had draped his VW camper with the stars and stripes and "Go Lance" banners. "I want to see him sweat."
Sunday was an important day for Lance Armstrong, aiming for a record seventh consecutive Tour victory. Two-thirds into the race, he has proved his dominance yet again, crushing his rivals in the mountain stages that generally decide the winner.
During this 15th stage, he fought off fierce attacks by Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich to keep a clear lead in the overall standings. And he had the satisfaction of seeing his loyal lieutenant, George Hincapie, who has ridden with him on all six of his victorious Tours, win the coveted stage.
Armstrong has not won a day stage this year, but his consistently strong performances have kept him wearing the leader's yellow jersey. His conservative, precise tactical approach has not won him many friends among spectators, who appear tired of the ease with which he has dominated this event for so long.
But that did not bother Mr. de Fayard, who had got his historic glimpse of Armstrong. Nor did the American's success upset Rabeuf and his friends, though they would have preferred a French victor. But the three couples are taking something else away from the Tour. Complete strangers 48 hours ago, they have all decided to go skiing together next winter.