A wicked tour of France
A WOMAN approaches. "Oh, tu es Australie? Un photo s'il vous-plait."
The Australian boxing kangaroo flag is wrapped around my body.
After some translation, a small child tells us this French lady wants to take our photo with the boxing kangaroo to send to her daughter who lives in Sydney.
Suddenly, we are deafened by the sound of media helicopters above us. It is the first indication that the riders are approaching.
The Tour de France is held over three weeks and it doesn't cost a cent to watch the race.
This is one of the only sporting events in the world where fans can secure front-row seats to watch elite athletes compete.
Millions of people line the course waving flags from all around the world in an electric, friendly and positive family atmosphere.
The race is held every year with cyclists racing across the French countryside in daily stages that total around 3500km.
Spectators get to see diverse, spectacular scenery from the mountains to the sea and tiny villages normally off the tourist trail. This race is one of the best advertising campaigns for the French tourism industry.
A total of four jerseys can be won including the overall winner, the sprint jersey, the king of the mountains and the best young rider jersey. In 2011, in a first for Australia, Cadel Evans won the race and proudly wore the yellow overall winner's jersey into Paris.
In 2010, we rented a Wicked Campervan and followed the race to soak up the atmosphere first- hand. The drive from Mirepoix to the Col du Tourmalet took us through the foothills of the Pyrenees and spectacular scenery packed with sunflowers and hay bails for more than 100km.
We pass many spectators
cycling to the top of the Col du Tourmalet. Three-and-a-half kilometres from the summit, the gendarmerie close the road at La Mongie, a ski resort, so we decide to camp on the grassy flats at the bottom of the lifts.
As we set up camp, a Scotsman passes.
"Can I take a photo of the campervan?"
"Sure, why not," I reply.
The Wicked campervan is a cheap and excellent mode of transport for following the Tour.
This vehicle is particularly useful in the mountain stages where space to park is at a premium. It provides basic accommodation and although there is not a lot of space, there's enough room for short trips.
The exterior is painted with cheeky signage providing good entertainment for those around.
Kids play football, old men play boules on the dusty road and Germans with their poles hike above us. We are surrounded by ski-lifts, mountains, donkeys, cows, sheep, the sound of hammers, birds, the rustling of grass, cowbells, air-beds being pumped up and the sound of languages from many countries.
There are flags from Australia, Luxembourg, France, England, Switzerland, Germany, Scotland, Spain and Norway.. Happy little children pass by wearing the team hats of their cycling heroes.
The next morning, tens of thousands of fans begin the long walk to the summit. The road is steep and the temperature has topped 30 degrees already.
The caravan of sponsors arrives to throw out giveaways of pens, hats, sausage, cakes, chips, water, cycling shirts. Everyone scrambles to get something.
The first bunch of riders led by Lance Armstrong appears.
Australian riders Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers follow later, riding side by side.
"Go Robbie" we scream as Australian Robbie McEwen passes us alone.
The last of the riders pass and it's all over so quickly
The next day we drive from Salies de Bearn to the Col de Marie-Blanque in less than two hours. The riders will come through late the nextmorning.
We must arrive the night before and try to find somewhere to park, which is not easy with hundreds of campervans already in place.
The Col de Marie-Blanque has one of the steepest gradients in the Pyrenees, so the riders will be challenged and moving slowly tomorrow. In the morning, the Col is very misty and foggy with low visibility. A media bike pulls up next to our top viewing spot.
Next, we hear the familiar screaming noise of the caravan, helicopters and riders. The sprinters come across last. It's all over in about 10-15 minutes.
The following day, the race starts from the village of Salies de Bearn.
A start is always exciting for the villages selected as host.
Thousands of people crowd into the "centre ville". The place is buzzing and choked with fans and temporary bars are set up with lots of entertainment.
There is a stage where the riders sign on each morning, official stores selling merchandise, separate corporate entertaining areas and countless trucks and buses that bring the riders and all of their entourages.
Within two hours, the riders are gone and the entire Le Tour infrastructure is dismantled and packed into the semi-trailers.
They will head off to set up for the start of the next stage. This process continues every day for three weeks.
In the morning, we make a snap decision not to travel to Paris for the final sprint around the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.
Instead, we head to Bordeaux to watch the time trial on a local stretch of road.
It has been a fabulous adventure. No Australians made it on to the podium in Paris but the Wicked camper got us right across the country and most importantly into prime parking spots at the top of the mountains.
We witnessed incredible French scenery, drank beer with locals in tiny French villages and waved and cheered on our cycling heroes. Best of all, it didn't cost us a cent to watch.