Stage 11: Avranches > Mont-Saint-Michel

This 33km time trial is relatively flat and will be Tony Martin’s chance to take something other than cuts and bruises away from this Tour. To be honest, I’m finding it difficult to get excited about this stage. For a start, time trials started to lose some of their mystique when riders decided to don skinsuits for a trip to the shops instead of keeping them for “best”. Then there’s the small matter of who’s not there. I did propose on Twitter that perhaps Fabian Cancellara could be invited as a wild card to contest this stage only but it seems that idea has only received traction in quarters that don’t count. Anyway, it’s bound to be scenic, although even the picturesque finish of Mont-St-Michel was previewed during stage 10, so no visual surprises await.

Another reason that I’m not overly enthusiastic about the stage is that we visited a couple of days ago and spotted no vaches whatsoever. Some of the postcards of Mont-Saint-Michel had sheep grazing in the foreground, but 1. SHEEP and 2. they must have been shipped (or ‘shopped) in, as no photogenic livestock were in evidence. Of course, I predicted a cavalcade of cows yesterday and look how prescient that was…!

There are cows in Normandy, if not necessarily this part of the region, so let’s say hello once again to the lovely Normande.

Vachesnormandes

Image: New Hope Normandes

It seems Phil and Paul were talking about Vikings yesterday, and this is one of the breeds said to have Viking roots. Whatever their provenance, they are striking beasts, usually red and white (although sometimes dark brown) with “spectacle” markings around their eyes. Their milk is prized for it’s suitability for cheese-making, so this is one of the key stages to put together a cheese board for your Tour snacks. You have a vast array of Normandy cheeses to choose from, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble picking these up where ever you are in the world.

 

Stage 10: Saint-Gildas-des-Bois > Saint-Malo

The first rest day is over, and so far there have been no reports of riders being sent home in disgrace which is A Good Thing. We did see the UCI president Pat McQuaid getting narky with journalists who dared raise the question of dopage  as, in his view, doping is “a generation past, now”. Well, that settles it then.

The riders will have been enjoying the air in Saint-Nazaire, but it’s back to work today with a 197km stage that looks set to be a sprinters’ showdown. There are a couple of reasonable looking bumps early on coming out of Guer and going into Paimpont, but the only climbing points on offer are for the Cat 4 Côte de Dinan at 142km. Will we be tweeting about Sagan’s facial hair again, or will Cav’s blast at the Omooga Farmers have paid off?

To the cows, and I am pretty excited about this stage. One of my favourite stories from our first Tour was that of the Breton Pie Noir, a breed that was being revived after nearly dying out. Back then, it was difficult to find a lot of information about the cattle, so I was excited to see that the Association has put together an informative website (in French, but that’s what Google Translate is for) that has breed information, pictures, events and a map to help you trouver the beasts and their produits. I really recommend clicking on the images on the left hand side to see a slideshow of the cattle.

photo-race-bretonne-pie-noir

Image: Animaux de Terroir

To add to my enthusiasm over the stage being in Pie Noir country, M Vache and I spent the past three days in Brittany pootling about in a Oooropcar and – quite by accident – managed to traverse almost the entire course. And we saw vaches! Many vaches! And we ate many delicious vachey things!

IMG_3776

They were really rather bemused as to why a strange woman got out of a car to chat to them…

But then they were quite happy to come over to pose for pictures.

They were quite happy to come over to pose for pictures. I’m sure they’d do the same for passing TDF motos – they were right on the route. Look for them just after Saint-Méen-le-Grand.

I hope this wasn't the long-range forecast...

I hope this wasn’t the long-range forecast… These were close to Gaël.

We saw many more – charolais featured, as well as some pretty red and white cattle – so I’m prepared to predict a vachetastic stage.

What to eat? Well, Brittany seems to love its butter. There was butter galore – in a local caramel, in the local pastries, on steak, with seafood… but this was my absolute favourite thing: the Kouign Amann. I have no idea how to say it, but managed to get my hands on them easily enough. The fabulous David Lebovitz has a recipe here so you can try this at home. I’d highly recommend you do.

 

Stage 9: Saint-Girons > Bagnères-de-Bigorre

The general tone of the twitter commentary after yesterday’s stage seemed to be “all over, nothing more to see here, two weeks of Sky steamrolling into Paris”. Apart from the fact that we’ll still enjoy cow spotting, Troll DJ-ing and general banter, this would be dull. Race organisers are obviously keen to dispel these thoughts:

This pair was first and second on day one in the high mountains and they are the dominant duo of the peloton but it need not translate to a repeat scenario in stage nine.

They seem careful to contain the statement to predictions for stage nine, though, not Paris!

This stage is still in the Pyrenees, but it is by no means a replica of stage eight. There are five categorised climbs in this 168.5km stage, and an approximately 30km descent into the finish. None of the climbs are HC, but the first is Cat 2 and the remaining four are Cat 1. Will Quintana have another crack at the peaks, knowing that the rest day and some rolling stages follow? How will BMC, the Shack and Saxo-Bank react to the losses their leaders suffered in stage eight? Will we get more gurning from Tommy V, or will he keep some facial contortions in the bank for Ventoux?

To the cows, and this was an obvious gimme. The Aure et Saint-Girons is indigenous to the region but – and this is key – as we’ve noted before it is severely endangered. Extra bonus points for spotting one, then. Here’s what to look for:

lacasta01

 

Image: La Casta

The above image is from a restaurant website, which has a lovely piece on the history of the breed (use Google translate if, like me, your French is limited to “deux bières, s’il vous plaît” or you just enjoy the eccentric poetry of computer translations).

Pending more lucky days, the proud, the great horned cow and graceful, is the Pyrenean mountain pasture ringing his cowbell, chestnut on the Blue Mountains. It can not long be satisfied with castles in Spain.

As we’ve mentioned before, the local cow’s milk cheese is Bethmale but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to track some down. I know it’s cold in the southern hemisphere right now and I wouldn’t be at all judgemental if you decided to go with another specialty of the region – confit. You don’t have to stick to duck or goose for confit (although I’m sceptical when I see things like “confit tomato” on menus, marked with V for vegetarian). Why not try confit beef?

There’s always a slight chance that we’ll spot the rare Lourdais in these parts… will this be our lucky Tour?

 

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!

Stage 7: Montpellier > Albi

This 205km stage is regarded as a “transitional” stage, this time moving across towards the Pyrenees in south-west France. There are four climbs in the stage with the intermediate sprint points coming after the second – and highest, classified at Cat 2 – climb. It’s hard to predict who will dominate in this stage. Will Cowvendish translate his *ahem* disappointment with yesterday’s finish into a stage win here? Or will a gutsy breakaway clear the peloton?

Also difficult to predict, as always, are the vaches. Yesterday we had a fabulous sighting of some cattle I’m prepared to call Camargue. Today starts with the peloton heading south-west before turning up into Tarn. Our ride earlier in the week took us through Pézanas and it’s in this area that we spotted the cattle in the stage 6 preview. Indeed, we were first alerted to the fact that we’d entered Camargue country by this:

P1040037

Image: M Vache

Béziers, which is just to the south of this course, is apparently known for two things, wine and bullfighting. The breakfast room of the hotel we stayed in was decorated with posters celebrating each year of the bullfights at the feria. Not something to whet your appetite. Perhaps the Camargue isn’t, either; the steak I ordered in Argens was actually Gasconne. It was tasty and simply cooked over coals, so I’d recommend doing the same tonight. If you’ve got a bottle of Languedoc red, all the better.

 

 

 

Stage 6: Aix-en-Provence > Montpellier

If stage 5 was most probably one for the sprinters, and – as it happened – it was, then stage 6 is most definitely one for them. It’s a relatively flat 176km westerly route across the top of the Camargue which then heads towards a coastal finish in Montpellier. The profile looks a little lumpy towards the start, albeit mostly downwards, before the only categorised climb (a Cat 4) at Col de la Vayède. The summit is 179m at the 68km mark, after which the points contenders can take it easy, if such a thing is possible. Can Cowvendish make it two in a row? Will Sagan get a stage victory in his green jersey?

You may have recognised that the region that the peloton is skirting shares its name with a breed of cattle. We first met this feisty breed in 2011 and last year were lucky to get a fabulous sighting of a large group during stage 13. Will we see any today? The Tour de Canal du Midi des Vaches also skirted the marshes of the Camargue yesterday – albeit the western end, which is more in the region of tomorrow’s stage – and signs are good! This week of riding has been lovely but we were verging on vines-and-no-vache fatigue… until this morning.

Stage 6 2

Stage 6Image: M Vache

I have to admit to being as excited upon spotting them as I’ve ever felt on any grand safari in Africa. Phil Liggett might have been able to tell us more about the bird of prey hovering menacingly overhead (not pictured), but I was confident to call this a live Camargue sighting.

That’s all very well, I hear you say, but what am I to eat? Whatever you like, is my answer to that. As we’ve learned over the past couple of years, the folk in these parts are not as committed to the cow thing as we are. Ratatouille, on the other hand… well, knock yourselves out. Maybe grate some parmesan on the top and call it a day. Now I think about it, though, in this general region last year we discussed a farmer who’d been feeding his cattle wine. A couple of days ago, I spotted a t-shirt in the Languedoc that read: I’ll start drinking milk as soon as cows start drinking wine. I’m guessing that vigneron is now a committed milk-drinker.

In “world’s collide” news today, I learned that cycling writer, podcaster and all-round tweeter of note Neil Browne did some very important work for the Tour de France in 2010.

Yep, I checked. It was charolais and the Sherwen commentary that kicked this whole thing off… so chapeau, Neil Browne!

Oh, and did I mention that we will be in Montpellier? We seem to have this whole wifi thing sorted, so I am aiming to be at the finish, tweeting frantically as I am bombarded with swag from the caravan. If you don’t hear from me again, I’ve been trampled in a stampede for free saucisson.

 

Stage 5: Cagnes-sur-Mer > Marseille

This 219km stage has four categorised climbs, however with one classified as a cat 3 and the rest at cat 4 and a descent into the finish it’s predicted that victory will be fought amongst the fast men. Cowvendish has been doing it a bit tough so far, and Sagan seems to have let slip the cloak of invincibility he seemed to wear so easily earlier. Could the maillot jaune give Simmental Gerrans and OGE a boost to the finish, or will Griepel look at an opportunity to make his mark? Or perhaps the cow that won’t quit will come through.

We’d better hope that a cow-friendly rider comes through for us today, as we are pretty firmly in seafood territory. You know you’re clutching at straws when you scan the official site’s finish town info and wonder if the region’s soap is made from a cattle byproduct and whether that counts. Or if you can claim footballer Franck Lebouef as a win.

image

It’s slim pickings for vache fans, that’s for sure.

Once again this year, Visible Procrastinations is putting together an exhaustive recap of all things SBS TDF, including full #trolldj playlist information and ad-break coverage. Great for those of us missing the local flavour!

Stage 4: Nice > Nice

It’s Team Time Trial day. Whose skinsuit will reign supreme? Which team will drop riders and which will demonstrate that they’ve been practicing their paceline? Will any GC dreams be shattered and will any dark horse candidates emerge? A swift 25km will reveal all.

Nice, and the greater Côte d’Azur, is not renowned for it’s beef or dairy. “What’s new?”, I hear you cry, “neither was Corsica!”. Ah, but at least in Corsica we had 10,000 or so cattle roaming the island looking for photo ops and al fresco diners to upset. Not so much in Nice. I have found something, though. You’ll have to bear with me… it’s a little eccentric and – yes – a circuitous route to a nice Nice cow link. First, to Dorset.

Yes, Dorset.

Apparently a Dorset cheese, Barber’s 1833 Cheddar, won last year’s World Cheese Awards Cheddar Trophy. Why is this important? Because the whey separated from these curds is used to make a beer, which is then distilled into vodka. That’s right, a vodka made from milk, and called Black Cow.

And yes, we are still a long way from Nice.

So is Lynette Fisher who runs Le Vieux Four, a Patisserie in Beaminster. Nice was where she started baking and France is what gives her inspiration. She has adapted a recipe for Far aux Pruneaux – a pudding that usually has prunes soaked in rum – substituting the local milk vodka for the rum.

I’m clutching at straws, but am happy to raise a glass of vodka and eat a French cake in the absence of local cattle.

CEC1F806-CA2D-48D9-8615-8C4F37DC2379

Stage 3: Ajaccio > Calvi

Jean François Pecheux’s description of this stage indicates he has a sadistic streak.

We are not going to hide our feeling of satisfaction: this is the kind of stage we’ve been looking for for years! It’s simple: there’s not a single metre of flat…

There are four categorised climbs over the 145km course, and quite a few cheeky looking ascents that are not counted for points. The longest is the 7.5km Cat 3 Col de San Martino, which averages 5.4%; the steepest is the final climb, the 3.3km long Cat 2 Col de Marsolino, which averages 8.1%.

Will last night’s veal inspire a Thomas Veau-ckler attack? Will FDJ give Vache-oh the chance to show off his new champions jersey on the climbs? Will Monsieur Froome-chien (thanks, Sir Alf) confound the fans again with an attack?

Paul Lamarra previewed the course and notes

Cycling around the golfe the Mediterranean, on my left, rolled onto rough sandy beaches with the ferocity of an ocean and on my right cows grazed in marshland among the reeds that some local cheesemakers still weave into baskets for moulding their cheeses.

So… eyes peeled, Team Vaches!

Maybe we’ll get some more coastal cow-viewing opportunities:

cows_of_corsica_manuale_862

Image: Free Images Live

I’m not going to bang on about the absence of cheeses. By now I’m sure some of you have been grabbing at any fromage in sight. I won’t judge. If you are maintaining your commitment to Corsican vaches, however, try this Corsican beef stew. I offer no guarantees on its authenticity. In fact, I am rather dubious about it, given that it was cooked by a vegetarian for a British reality show and comes with this note:

Please note this recipe is the contestant’s own and has not been tested professionally. Like the Come Dine With Me contestants, you could be creating a culinary delight or dining disaster, so switch on your ovens and be bold.

You’ve been warned.

Stage 2: Bastia > Ajaccio

It’s up, up and up (and dooooooooown, then up) on today’s 156km stage. Perhaps Kittel might fight to cross the sprint point at 33km first, but it’s unlikely he’ll be first across the line in Ajaccio after the four categorised climbs test the peloton. The summit of the Cat 3 Col de Bellagranajo comes at the 70km mark. There’s a descent before the Cat 3 climb to the Col de le Serra; the Cat 2 Col de Vizzavona climb starts with nary a pause. A long downhill follows, but there is a final Cat 3 climb of the Côte de Salario just over 10km before the finish and, whilst short, it has an average gradient of 8.9%.

We are still in Corsica and I very much doubt that they’ve developed an affinity for l’affinage de fromage de vache since yesterday. I’m sure the race organisers will have cleared cows from the road, but who knows? This was taken near the finish town of Ajaccio:

corsican-cows-strolling-c2a9tom-fiorina1

Image: Tom Fiorina

Remember the part where the cows were set free because of changes to farm subsidies? They were intended to prop up veal production, so here’s a Corsican veal dish to keep you warm tonight. Cook it to honour the white jersey.

Veal with olives (Veal à la Corse)