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 14: Limoux > Foix

You may think we’ve already hit the wall with this year’s Tour, but we haven’t. The riders enter the Pyrenees in this 192km stage and will face The Wall today in the form of a brutal new Cat 1 climb, the Mur de Péguère, which starts at around the 143km mark. This 9.4km climb is described by the Cycling Weekly guide as a “killer”. The last 4km, with an average of 11% and sections kicking up to 18%, are “an absolute leg-breaker”. Prior to the wall is the Cat 2 Col du Portel at 30km and then the Cat 1 Port de Lers at 126.5km. The 38km into Foix which follows the summit of The Wall might soften the impact of the killer climb at the finish line. Cycling Weekly predicts that Wiggins could struggle with the ascent against Cowdell. Let’s hope that this is true and that the longer descent – chosen over the more direct 26km option for safety reasons – doesn’t allow him to get back into it!

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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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