For cycling fans, the Tour de France is both a magnificent challenge and a chance to get to know some new parts of the country. This year, 180 cyclists are following a 2,174-mile route that takes them from the beaches of Brittany, through the Pyrenees mountain range, across Provence, into Italy and all the way back up to Paris.
Along the way, they are passing through hundreds of towns and villages. And there's twice the excitement in one of those towns this year.
Embrun, France, last hosted the Tour 34 years ago. This year, there are two stages starting from Embrun — the first time that has happened in the Tour's 95-year history.
With its 12th century cathedral and picture-perfect setting in the southern French Alps, the town welcomes tens of thousands of tourists every year. But for the Tour, it's bursting at the seams with visitors who have come to watch as the cyclists leave for two of the toughest mountain climbs in the race.
Nearly every hotel room in the region has been booked for months. At the Saturday morning market in the sprawling town square, merchants like fruit vendor Sophie Pianfety were doing a booming business. Her sales were up more than 30 percent.
The Tour has taken over the town. The roads have been repaved and Embrun is festooned with balloons, flags and paper hearts all in the tour's official color, yellow. The local busker is raking it in from the crowds of cycling fans, and even the traffic circles and streetlights are decorated with French flags and multicolored bicycles.
Andre Roujny, who works at the local sewage plant, has made a special effort to show his support for the tour.
Roujny lives right at the starting line. He spent three days building straw replicas of cyclists dressed in the yellow leader's jersey, green stage winner's jersey and polka-dot best climber jersey and attaching them to his house.
It's one thing to see the competitors climb hills and mountains, but it's really exceptional to have them start right outside his house, he says.
The residents of Embrun have stayed loyal to the Tour de France despite the doping scandals that have plagued the event. They hope the extensive television coverage of the Tour's two departures will draw international attention to their town and bring even more tourists next year.
But not everyone is thrilled to see the cyclists pass through.
Local resident Pascale Godfroy says she had to park her car half a mile from home because all the roads have been blocked off. She says she has to leave for work two hours early on race days, just so she doesn't interfere with the Tour.
The competitors will leave the Alps after climbing their highest peak Wednesday, headed for Paris and Sunday's finish on the Champs-Elysee.