Stage 11: Carcassonne > Montpellier

It’s one for the sprinters, looking to fight it out for a win at the end of this 162.5km stage. If you’re thinking this might mean an early night, given the relative shortness of the stage and the lack of trying climbs, you might be in for an unwelcome surprise. It starts a full hour later than yesterday’s stage. Yes, it should be faster… but how much faster? Get the kettle on.

Last time the tour finished in Montpellier we were at the finish, baking in the hot sun and celebrating Daryl Impey’s yellow jersey. The couch peloton was also celebrating, as there were sightings of the local vaches, the Camargue.

We caught a glimpse of some back in 2013 as we rode just south of today’s route.

Stage 6 2

Stage 6Images: M Vache

It seems fitting that the zippy Camargue is the breed for a sprint stage. In these parts, bulls are bred for la course Camarguiase, in which

the goal of the Camargue matador, or raseteur, is to pluck a ribbon from between the bull’s horns. The bulls aren’t killed or injured, but it’s extremely dangerous for the men trying to get that ribbon. The dozen or so raseteurs, all dressed in white, crisscross the arena, calling out to the creature to attract him. They constantly have to leap up into the bleachers to escape the charging bull.

 Eleanor Beardsley, All Things Considered

Here’s how it works:

This blog by Debra Kolkka has some lovely pictures taken on a tour of the marshlands.

I’m very much looking forward to trying tonight’s wine, a Carignan, Grenache and Syrah blend, despite the label being deux ânes rather than deux vaches. The Drinks List describes it has being “bright and bouncy” with “racy acid”. Perfect for a sprint stage!

Stage 21: Sèvres > Paris Champs-Élysées

The only question to be answered in the final stage is “Who will take stage honours?”. All the jerseys are decided: Chris Froome has both the Maillot Jaune and the Polka Dots; Peter Sagan has the Green Jersey under control and Nairo Quintana  has the white jersey. Of course, the Tour overall has most likely left us all with a number of questions over which we might argue for the next 342 days. I doubt that one of those will be “Did Qhubeka deserve a wildcard?”. Hopefully they will become regular participants.

As we watch the procession towards Paris we should join the leaders in celebrating with a glass of champagne. If you still have some aged alpine cheese in the fridge, this is the match of choice at Serious Eats. More traditionally, rich triple-cream cheeses are matched with sparkling wines – seems like a good excuse for something oozy and decadent!

Unless something extraordinary happens, there will be no cattle to spot today. I’ll leave you with this painting; there may be a couple of unseen vaches behind  the hedgerows.

Road to Sèvres, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1855-1865

Road to Sèvres, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1855-1865

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Stage 20: Modane Valfrejus > Alpe d’Huez

It’s the final stage in the Alps, and the last stage where anybody is likely to do something unexpected. The organisers have managed to squeeze the Télégraphe, Galibier and Alpe d’Huez into a 110km stage. This time yesterday, I figured it was going to be a stage to watch the climbers fight over the King of the Mountains points and bemoan the lack of interest in the GC after week one. Quintana’s attack on La Toussuire yesterday showed that Froome was vulnerable… but is it too little, too late, or has Nairo saved his box of matches just for this stage? It’s a very outside chance.

We’re still in the Savoie so let’s hope there are some cows attached to the cowbells we hear. Today’s route is not too far from the birthplace of the Villard de Lans so I’m willing to call the Alpe d’Huez cows VdLs.

Some of Alpe d'Huez's many cows... could they be Villard-de-Lans?

Image: M Vache

Tip: if the video doesn’t load, refresh the page.

Video: Alrom Niverno

The Villard de Lans is a dual-purpose breed, described as “spirited, with a lively disposition”. Their milk is used for the Bleu du Vercors-Sassenage cheese which is celebrated in an annual festival in August – “20,000 visiteurs… 2 tonnes de fromage”. It’s worth checking out their website for the collection of posters promoting the event over the past few years. TrollDJ would be particularly interested in the 2012 poster. The breed is on the conservation list of France Génétique Elevage with the current population recorded as 403 cows.

Speaking of blue cheeses, there is another Savoie cheese that is probably more endangered than the Villard de Lans. The Bleu de Termignon is made from the milk of the Tarentaise and Abondance cows by three producers high in the Alps. One producer has started to modernise production, but the other two producers are using the same techniques as their forefathers. The story is told beautifully here.  If you can’t find any of these blue cheeses, feel free to substitute any of the other delicious alpine cheeses or start doing the end-of-Tour fridge clean-out. Oh, and if you think you can manage one more cheese-and-potatoes dish this Tour, here’s the local version.

 

Stage 19: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne > La Toussuire

This is the sharp end of the Tour even if judging only by all those alpine climbs that look incredibly symmetrical in the route profile. Froome continues to hold on to the yellow jersey and it would take a miracle – or a catastrophe – to dislodge it from his grip. I’m sure no cycling fan wants to see either of those. There is still a lot of life left in the climbers’  competition, though, and we can expect the motos to stick closely to Bardet, Voeckler, Rolland and Pinot.

There will no doubt be a point during this 138km stage – say, at kilometre zero – when the sprinters will look over their shoulders and wonder if it’s worth going the long way ’round. It’s 3.8 km to Saint-Pancrace – they could stop for a spot of lunch and meet up with the race for the last 20km. Alas, that option is not open to them so it will be a matter of doing those infernal calculations while they drag themselves up and down the Col du Chaussy, the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Mollard, quite probably humming Helter Skelter to themselves as they go.

Hopefully whilst they are doing that, we will see some cattle. We know we will see Tarantaise cows as long as we tune in to the Taste le Tour segment.

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Image: SBS, Taste le Tour

These gorgeous beasts produce the milk that makes the equally gorgeous Beaufort cheese, known as Prince of the Gruyères. This cheese is made in large wheels which are then matured in caves or cellars for up to two years. For more on its manufacture, watch tonight or check out this lovely post. It is definitely worth seeking out some of this delicious cheese (and yes, I am saying that in Gabriel Gaté’s accent as I type). We bought some at a street market when we were visiting the stage 16 start two years ago and, even under less than ideal cheese transporting and storage conditions, it was a revelation. Gabriel is cooking with it tonight – an omelette, which seems like the perfect end-of-week dinner. I think I might do the same.

 

Stage 18: Gap > Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne

…I thought that it was nothing more than a path to move sheep or cattle to and from their pastures!

Thierry Gouvenou, The Official Tour de France Guide 2015

The road he’s talking about is 10km from the finish of today’s stage and contains 17 (or 18, depending which part of page 201 you’re looking at) hairpins. And, presumably, opportunities to spot both vaches and moutons. It’s the last of the seven climbs in today’s stage, coming just after the descent of the HC Col du Glandon.

What cattle are we likely to see? The milk of the Montbéliarde from the last couple of stages, the Tarentaise (also known as Tarine) and the Abondance are used to create one of the region’s star cheeses, Reblochon, so keep an eye out for these alpine breeds.

Vache-tarentaise-et-le-lac-de-roseland-ferme--6614e1T650

Vache Tarentaise

Image: BlackSlash73

800px-Abondance_cow_profile

Abondance

Image: Walpole

If the Ps start muttering about caves again tonight, it might be because they hold some maturing Reblochon rather than a selection of bats. This washed rind cheese has a nutty flavour but a strong odour that is “not for the timid“, apparently. If you are preparing for Run Melbourne on the weekend, you might want to carbo-load with the reblochon-and-potato wonder that is tartiflette.

If Reblochon’s not your speed, there are many other alpine cheeses to choose from. The Savoie-Mont Blanc website proudly showcases the rest of the region’s cheesy wealth. Stock up and spend the rest of the week in a cheese coma. Sweet dreams!

Stage 17: Digne-les-Bains > Pra Loup

We’ve finally made it to the Alps! The riders have had a rest, as have we, so no doubt we’ll attack the five climbs in this 161km stage with vigour. From what I’ve read, the biggest challenge here is less about the fourth ascent (up the Cat 1 Col d’Allos) than it is about the descent before the final climb to Pra Loup. It looks to  head upwards from around the 55km to go mark with the summit of the Col d’Allos 33km later before a “technical” descent “to delight Nibali and cause anxiety for Froome”. The way Chris Froome is looking at the moment, I think it will take a lot to cause him anxiety.

Keep your eyes open for more Montbéliarde in these parts. Interestingly, although the number of farms has decreased sharply – from 106 in 1988 to 37 in 2010 – the amount of agricultural land has increased over the same period – from 1002ha to 2989ha – with farmers turning towards sheep and cattle breeding. I’m hoping this makes for some vache-tastic viewing.

800px-Comtois_et_Montbeliardes_0007

Image: Arnaud 25

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Stage 16: Bourg-de-Peage > Gap

I’m guessing that at 177km mark when the peloton reaches Gap there won’t be a great deal of enthusiasm for the climb up the Col de Manse, particularly when they are only going to finish up at Gap again. It seems unnecessarily cruel just before the rest day. In Gap. I wonder if The Gap has a store in Gap? Clearly the SherLiggett enthusiasm for repetition is infectious. Race Director Thierry Gouvenou suggests that the Col de Manse is more challenging that it looks on paper, so has ruled out the sprinters for this stage. I think my predictions so far are 0/15, so I’m not even throwing a name out there.

Cows? Well, I’ve tracked down a fromagerie just north of Gap and it looks as though they use the milk of the Montbéliarde.

Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 6.08.12 pmSee?

Vache Montbéliarde

Vache Montbéliarde

Image: PRA

The Montbéliarde, as we’ve discussed before, is a popular dairy breed, especially in these parts. There’s a lot more information about the Monty here but even if you’re not fascinated by somatic cell counts by lactation, it’s worth a click through for the cover photo and title.

There’s no specific cheese for this region that I’ve been able to track down, but if you check out the Ebrard Fromages au lait de vache range, I’m sure you’ll find a style you like.

Stage 15: Mende > Valence

Sorry, I’m a little distracted by a photo in the Tour Guide. It’s 2011 and Voeckler is in the yellow jersey, clutching two Credit Lyonnais lions. “So?” you ask. “What’s the big deal?”

What in the name of god...

What in the name of god…

Anyway, enough of that. On with the stage! We have what could be a Sagan-friendly stage on our hands here. The riders have three categorised climbs in the first 70 kms, a descent to the sprint point at 108km, then a climb up to the Cat 2 Col de l’Escrinet at 126.5km. Sure, breakies will doubtless try to get away, but the final 60km looks tough to stay away. We shall see!

Will we see cows? Perhaps we might catch a glimpse of some Salers.

Bonus points for cowbell

Bonus points for cowbell

Image: B. Navez

This hardy breed originated in the Cantal mountains, north-west of where we are today. They are well-adapted to the harsh mountain climate and apparently thrive on poor soils. Their coat is thick and curly in winter, but smooths out over summer. I am quite taken by the description of their horns from my cattle bible:

…its horns are quite long (indeed, a feature of the breed) and grow outwards and rather pertly upwards, then curve backwards and outwards.

Valerie Edwards

You won’t need to stretch your imagine in linking this cow of the Cantal to the cheese of the same name. Cantal is one of the oldest cheeses in France, dating back to the time of the Gauls. It has a tangy flavour that is sometimes likened to cheddar. David Lebovitz rhapsodises about it here. You might struggle to find the prized Cantal vieux, which is aged for more than six months, as it is rarely exported, however Melbourne readers can pop along to Richmond Hill where they mature the cheese they import for at least three months before selling it. Bon appetit!

Stage 14: Rodez > Mende

This is the last stage of the second third of Le Tour! Doesn’t time fly? If you are hanging out for a rest day, you might be concerned to see that there are still three stages to go before Tuesday’s chance to recuperate. I know I was!

Today’s 178.5km stage starts where we left off yesterday, climbing towards the Côte de Pont-de-Salars over the first 20 km, before descending to what looks like around 80km of false flats. Choose your tipple wisely. The last 40km contain three climbs, with a short but steep finish up the Côte de la Croix Neuve. I wonder if we’ll be exhorting Quintana to go, go, go and not look back? I hope so.

We are still in Aubrac territory.

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Image: Taste le Tour

It’s not often that I’d presume to guarantee a cow sighting, but Gabriel did preview these beauties at the end of last night’s Taste le Tour.  I have had some beef marinating for 24 hours for his Paleron de boeuf aux olives and I’m sure it will be just perfect for a winter’s night. If you’re still in a cheesy potato frame of mind, you could always try the other cheesy potato dish from yesterday’s stage. It’ll still be regionally appropriate!

 

Stage 13: Murat > Rodez

The big climbs of the Pyrénées are behind us and the Alps are a few days ahead. This 198.5km stage isn’t a flat sprinters’ stage, with three climbs in the last 60km, but hopefully we’ll see Team Sky relax a little and allow some of the non-GC contenders have a day in the spotlight. Perhaps this is time for Tommy V to justify that TV time and take a stage, although he’ll have serious competition from Peter Sagan.

As we leave the Pyrénées, we head towards Aubrac territory.

8549134537_2220b4ab5c_zImage: Jérôme Therond

Whilst not as scarce as the cattle we’ve tried to spot over the past few stages, they are certainly not as populous as the Charolais we’ve been seeing all over the place. They range in colour from fawn to brown – sometimes blonder and sometimes a tad darker than the one pictured – with white socks and a white-ringed nose. Originally bred by monks, they were used as a triple-purpose animal: draft, dairy and beef. According to my cattle bible, cross-breeding resulted in a faster maturing animal and the breed society was formed in 1914. A highly successful conservation program was launched in 1976; by 1979 there were around 80,000 Aubracs in France. Unfortunately a high rate of brucellosis infection was discovered in the herd. Today, the local population is estimated to be around 10,000.

What to eat for this stage? Well, the milk from Aubrac cattle was used in the Laguiole cheese, a key ingredient in the potato dishes of the region, aligot and truffade. You don’t need to spend too much effort tracking down Laguiole – it’s a tomme cheese so grab whatever cows milk tomme is available near you. The only real decision is which recipe to make?