Stage 8: Castres > Ax 3 Domaines

Is this put-up-or-shut-up time for Team Sky? Quite possibly, and signs seem to indicate that they are well and truly able to put up in this first real mountain stage. The first 120kms look fairly benign, with the first climb a mere 2.2km 4th category culminating at 374m at the 26.5km mark. I guess this will give the riders early warning as to who might have spent too much trying to keep up with the Cannonballs yesterday. They’ll then pootle along to the sprint point at 119.5km and then… BAM: the 100th Tour’s first HC climb. It’s the Col de Pailhères, which is 15.3km long and will take them up to over 2000m. Then follows a tricky descent to Ax-les-Thermes, finishing with a 7.8km Cat 1 climb to Ax-3-Domaines.

What about the cows?

Over the past couple of tours, we’ve talked about the Gasconne cattle in this region. This beef was definitely on the menu not far from the route when we passed through, although we didn’t see any ungrilled ones. Keep your eyes open for these hardy beasts. We’ve also looked at the Albères “semi-wild” cattle in these parts, although I’m not sure that we’ve ever had a reliable sighting and they would be difficult to distinguish from the Camargue at a distance.

The stage takes the peloton through Castelnaudary, which we explored on our bikes a few days ago. The closest I came to a cow in those parts was at the local butcher.

Castelnaudary

Castelnaudary is renowned for its cassoulet and that was the featured item in the specialist “local produce” shop. We managed to resist buying some – I’m not sure how, although cassoulet two days before in Toulouse, confit the night before in Renneville and the promise of more cassoulet in Carcassonne might have had something to do with it – and went, instead, for a local cows milk cheese called naurouze. It’s soft ripened cheese and is described here as a camembert, although I’ve never had one like this before. The lovely woman at the fromage counter allowed – nay, encouraged! – me to poke and prod them until I found one that was perfectly ripe. It ripened even more as we rode to our picnic spot and was almost dippable by the time we ate.

Castelnaudary cheese

Utterly lovely. I doubt you’ll find it where you are, but grab something really stinky and ripe and enjoy. At the very least, you might attract some of those Pyrenean birds of prey the Ps seem to like so much.

In fantasy league news, Black Cat Racing had a handy lead over Aiming for Altitude and Enrico 666 after stage 6. Où Est Mon Bidon is currently “leading” the Lanterne Rouge competition. I’ll try to remember to update the standings daily – check the sidebar!

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