Stage 21: Créteil > Paris Champs-Élysées

We’ve come to the final stage of the Tour and tradition has it that the winner is already decided, barring an unprecedented attack or accident. Still, crossing the line on the Champs-Élysées is something the sprinters will be battling for – will Cowvendish be laughing at the end of today?

Starting a mere 8km outside of Paris, the pelaton will take a gentle, winding Sunday ride for 95 km until hitting the Champs-Élysées and letting the sprinters loose for a few circuits. This will give you plenty of time to view the background landmarks (look them up in your Frommers if necessary), drink some champagne and treat yourself to some …ummm…. readily available “speciality cheese” to  mark the occasion.

The Laughing Cow (French: La vache qui rit) is a brand of cheese products and in particular refers to the brand’s most popular product, the spreadable wedge.     Wikipedia  (Honestly we can’t make these things up!)

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Stage 20: Grenoble > Grenoble

It’s the individual time trial and we know what that means.  Either we’ll see no cows at all, or the same cows over and over and over again (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

The riders won’t have time to check the signage tonight.

Image: Tim

Of course, with Cowbell so close to taking yellow, we’ll forgive you if you are too nervous to spot bovines tonight.  Cowbell is not up until just after midnight, though, so perhaps cow-spotting will have a calming effect.  If you do see cows, see if you can identify the Montbéliarde, Villard-de-Lans or even Abondance.

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Stage 19: Modane Valfréjus > Alpe-d’Huez

Okeydoke folks!  Here we have it … the one we’re all been waiting for … the stage that is all about … CHEESE!

Yep – we saved it up for this amazing stage – the alpine cows, the rustic production techniques and the rare cheeses.

(Okay, okay, so there are some mountains in this stage as well but you know- we’ve seen Alpe d’Huez before .. yes?)

So what’s so special about alpine cheeses? When summer finally arrives in the French Alps, the local cows are led up the hills to graze on the new alpine meadows.  As the snow retreats they move further and further upwards, grazing on lush new growth grass. The herds are looked after by local alpagistes who stay in chalets, milk the cows and make cheese.  There are chalets dotted all over the slopes and the alpagistes move between them as the herd moves. By the middle of August the herd will have reached almost the snowline, and will start to descend over the same slopes which will be rich and grassy again. On Saint-Michael’s Day, 29 September, the herds return to their barns to eat hay, calve and winter cheesemaking begins. The alpine cheeses come from a lifestyle, not a conveyor belt. They come from small niche dairy farmers and cheesemakers who have been managing cow herds in the same way for hundreds of years. And the cheeses they make are sublime.

Luckily for us in Melbourne we can get hold of some of these lovely cheeses from a few select Cheesemongers: Richmond Hill Larder, Simon Johnson, David Jones should all be able to hook you up.

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Stage 18: Pinerolo > Galibier – Serre Chevalier

The race is crossing back into France for the end-game of this year’s Tour.  The official race guide describes this as “the showcase stage of the 2011 Tour de France”.  We’re pretty sure they are talking about the challenging cols over this 200.5km stage – Col Agnel, Col d’Izoard and Galibier are all hors categorie climbs – but perhaps they are also talking about the cattle.  Galibier-Serre Chevalier puts us in the Dauphiné alps, so whilst there is no indigenous breed for this particular area, we remember the participation of les vaches in the Dauphiné-Libéré.  This time, we hope they take a more spectatorial interest than a participatory one.


Photo: Will Levy

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Stage 17: Gap > Pinerolo

It seems like it taken an aeon but tonight … finally … the “incursion into foreign territory” AND The Alps!  Oh yes!

There’s also some nail-biting time as we watch descents and hope for a safe, accident free stage. Apparently the sun is shining in Pinerolo so that’s something to look forward to at least.  I don’t think any of the sprinters will be looking forward to today’s very lumpy ride. Four summits on the way to over 2,000m, then a long descent of 1500m, one more summit and a downhill finish.  I’m exhausted just writing about it.

Meanwhile though, as the peloton crosses into Italy, so we’ll take a look at the local cow, the Oropa also called the “Pezzata Rossa d’Oropa”. This red pied cow is said to come from Northern European pied cattle dating back to the fifth century Burgundi or Borgognoni, similar to Simmenthal.


Photo: Kranky Kidz

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Stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux > Gap

After a much-needed day of rest, the Tour restarts in the Drôme and finishes in the Hautes-Alpes.  The route profile shows a consistent uphill gradient, but only one categorised climb: a Cat 2 at 151km creating an 11km descent into the finish at Gap.  Who will make a break this stage?  Will the God of Thunder have a crack?  Should we keep an eye on Simmental Gerrans? And what can we expect from this part of the world?  Well, there is an AOC cheese – picodon – from the Drôme department, however it’s from the wrong four-legged mammal, the goat.  Other specialties from the area include an AOC olive oil, truffles, herbs and white garlic.  Do you see anything missing here?  I was very excited when I came across “coeur de boeuf“… only to discover that it is a tomato.  Surely there must be some produit de la vache?  Monsieur Google teased me with a result for “cheese, hautes-alpes” that really got my attention: an article in Time Magazine called Restaurants for Cheese Lovers. Sudi Pigott refers to “Le Testard from the Hautes-Alpes”.  Could it be? Well, the only other reference to Le Testard I could find in the entire interweb was on a blog that reproduced the Time piece.  Please let me know if you are familiar with this cheese.

Provence Web mentions cattle grazing in the Hautes-Alpes in the Drac Noir valley, which is north of Gap, but maybe the helicopters will take pity on us and sweep over the area during the presentations.  Otherwise, this may be as close as we’ll get to une vache tonight.

Cows in Gap

Photo: Will Levy

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Stage 15: Limoux > Montpellier

192.5 kilometers of pretty flat cycling gets us from the Pyrenees to the Alps.  The last day for the sprinters to shine and probably finalise the green jersey standings before they hit the Champs-Élysées.  Mind you – if they come across any of our featured bovine for this stage, they’d better have their sprinting legs on [particularly those teams in red… I’m looking at you, BMC and Cofidis – Injera]! Mesdames et Messieurs may I present….Le Camargue!

 Image: Kranky Kids

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Stage 14: Saint-Gaudens > Plateau de Beille

The last Pyrenees stage, and we’ve leaving on a high (hah!) note with six climbs in 168km along the Spanish border.  Easy! (umm… no not really). We can expect to see the leaders keeping a close eye on each other, and looking for opportunities to grab some time ahead of their rivals. No doubt you’ll hear this a few more times during the commentary tonight, but to get in first .. . note that every rider who has previously won at Plateau de Beille has gone on to the win the Tour that same year.

From a bovine point of view, we can expect to see some of the tough-hoofed Gasconne cattle, winners in the cattle race in Southern France.

Gasconne Muqueusus Noires

Image: Farming in France

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Stage 13: Pau > Lourdes

Tonight’s stage takes us from Pau, which is a regular stop on the Tour route, to Lourdes, which is hosting the finish for only the second time in Tour history.  Before the cyclists reach Lourdes, they will have to climb the hors catégorie Col d’Aubisque.  Let’s hope the roads are bone dry, as Lourdes is at the end of around 40km of descending. We are still in the magnificent Pyrenees and therefore still in the home of the seriously endangered French Pyrenees cattle breeds.  In yesterday’s stage preview we met the Aure et Saint-Girons, and tonight we’ll take a look at the two others: Lourdais and Béarnais.

Let’s start with the stage’s eponymous cow, the Lourdais.  There’s really not a lot I can tell you about this beast and, to be honest, we are unlikely to get a sighting of one tonight.  Whilst these days cattle are generally seen as “dairy” or “beef” breeds, with some cross-overs, this is a relatively recent development. Historically, cattle were all-rounders, and the Lourdais is described as

certainly the best all-rounder of all the Pyrenean breeds, with good physical proportions and good milk production of 20 liters a day after giving birth, without the use of special food rations.

Oklahoma State University

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Stage 12: Cugnaux > Luz-Ardiden

It’s been a long, long ride from the western edge of France, to Normandy and right down the centre. Tonight, we finally hit some hills in the Pyrenees.  The sprinters have had their time in the sun (and the rail and hail), and now it’s time for the yellow jersey battle to take centre stage.

But before we get to the three substantial climbs of this stage we travel from Cugnaux across the flatlands of Haute-Garonde.  Here we are hoping to spot some absolutely gorgeous Mirandaise cattle.  These originated next door in Gers area and were bred to be strong, docile and resistant to heat. The oxen were used by farmers to work the fields, and would then be fattened up at the end of their working life, producing tender flavoursome beef. The introduction of tractors reduced their value to the farmers and they all but died out during the 20th century.  At the end of the 1970s there were no more than 150 cows and one purebred bull. But .. ta dah! In conjunction with the Slow Food Foundation for BioDiversity a program has been established to increase herd numbers and retain the pure bloodlines by educating consumers about the quality of the meat.


Image: Farming in France

(aren’t you glad they are saving them cow fans?)

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