Stage 10: Escaldes-Engordany > Revel

So, rest day number one is done, and stage 10 will test the freshness of the peloton’s legs with the almost immediate ascent of the Cat 1 Port d’Envalira. I know we’ve all been missing the Pou-Pou stories over the last couple of stages, so get ready for more as this climb was made famous in 1964 by a Poulidor attack. The only other categorised climb is the Cat 3 Côte de Saint-Ferréol just before the end of the 197km stage. Thibaut Pinot has had more than 24 hours to prepare his KOM outfit for today. I’m sending up a prayer that he will take a less-is-more approach, but it’s possible he might go full-dot.

Stage 9 was disappointing for vaches-fans and I’m not feeling all that confident about this stage. Still, I know Team Vaches will remain vigilant – stay on the lookout for the Aure et Saint-Girons.800px-Vache-aure-et-saint-girons_(casta)_SDA2013

Image: Eponimm

Despite featuring this rare breed annually for the past five years, the population doesn’t seem to have exploded, so the chances of a sighting are slim. I’m struggling to find vache-related food for this stage: most of the specialties of the regions we’re traversing are porky or duck-y. We are, after all, deep in cassoulet country. I do have extremely fond memories of a delicious, gooey cheese that we bought in Castelnaudary and ate alongside the Canal du Midi – find yourself something super ripe and dig in.

Stage 12: Lannemezan > Plateau de Beille

It’s the last day in the Pyrénées! Today’s finish at Plateau de Beille is described by technical director Thierry Gouvenou as “underestimated”.

For fans, the Tour’s big summit is Alpe d’Huez. But for the riders, Beille is much more difficult!

Judging from the problems they had on Bastille Day, and the number of riders who didn’t finish or dropped off the back yesterday, I’m not sure most of this lot will be all that keen on facing the most difficult climb today! Anyway, before they will even get the chance to test themselves against Beille there’s the Col de Portet d’Aspet, Col de la Core and Port de Lers. Who will take this opportunity?

We are back in the region of the Aure et Saint-Girons today, another endangered Pyrénées breed.

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Image: Parc des Pyrénées ariégeoises

Numbers appear to be fluctuating. In the first year the Casta was featured here, there were apparently 255 of them. The 2010 figures are now available and they seem to have dwindled to 208. It certainly doesn’t appear that they are flourishing, so we are probably more likely to see more Charolais, or perhaps a Blonde d’Aquitaine or two.

After a couple of nights of sheep milk cheeses, there is a local cows milk cheese for this stage: Barousse. It’s a hard, uncooked cheese made from unpasteurised milk – sometimes mixed with sheep milk and sometimes solely cows milk – matured for five to eight weeks. It is described as similar to Bethmale, and has a “soft, melty texture and hay-like flavour.” If you like the sound of that, and have been seduced by the scenery over the past couple of stages, head over to Loures-Barousse for their cheese festival, 31st July to 2nd August. What could be better than

A weekend devoted to the arts of cheese-making and tasting in beautiful Pyrenean Valley setting.

 

Stage 16: Carcassonne > Bagnères-de-Luchon

With the Tour’s longest stage on offer today (237.5km) the riders will know that their rest day is over. Today’s route includes five categorised climbs, the last of which is the HC Port de Balès. From the summit, it’s approximately 20km of descending to the finish at Bagnères-de-Luchon. Nibali wasn’t looking too weary before the rest day but with three Cat 1s and an HC finish on tomorrow’s stage, he won’t want to spend it all today. Still, he doesn’t seem to be able to resist the opportunity to attack and he’s a strong descender. I’d be happy to see a duel between Rodriguez and Majka to break the points tie on the KoM competition although I’d be equally pleased to see Voeckler cross the final climb in a good position just in case he goes off-piste on the descent.

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Image: Roland Darré

We’ve been in these parts before – the home of the endangered breed, the Aure et Saint-Girons. With only 179 of them listed in the most recent census we remain unlikely to spot one but keep your eyes open just in case. It might just be a better stage for those moutons. Two of the dishes listed as specialities of the finish town are “pétéram (a dish prepared from sheep tripe) [and] pistache (mutton based cassoulet)”. Speaking of cassoulet, we ate many versions of this in this region last year but I didn’t see a beef one. Perhaps I just didn’t look hard enough…

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:

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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 17: Bagnères-de-Luchon > Peyragudes

Today’s 143.5km, five climb stage is the last chance the climbers will have to grab big points and given that only 4 points separate Europcar’s Veau-ckler and Kessiakoff of Astana, they are bound to be hotly contested. It’s also the last chance the for the weaker time triallists to move up in the GC – Nibali’s moves were all marked last night and it’s doubtful that Sky will let him escape. Tejay might make a play for a higher placing, though, and I’d love to see Moobeldia having a crack. Evans, whilst conceding he’s out of podium contention, has suggested that he would like to make a move, but it’s probably unlikely that he will be allowed.

The course today is “short, but brutal!” according to Technical Director Jean-François Peschaux. The climbing starts early, just after 18km, with the Cat 1 Col de Menté. This 9.3km ascent has an average gradient of 9.1% but the first and third kilometres average 10.3 and 11% respectively and the rest of the climb ranges from 5 to 12%. The descent is described as “tortuous” and the Cat 2 col des Ares and Cat 3 Côte de Burs will no doubt come as a bit of a relief. The day’s toughest climb, the 11.7km of the HC Port de Balès, starts at around 100km. Expect narrow roads, the usual fan kerfuffle, and perhaps picture break-up because of the trees (although we’ve been pretty lucky with that this year). After descending to Saint-Aventin, the final climb of the day commences. It’s really two climbs: riders will tackle the Col de Peyresourde (about 9km), descend briefly and then climb again to finish at the ski station of Peyragudes. Finally – a mountain top finish! They seem to have been few and far between this year. I’ll leave the last of the stage overview to Cycling Weekly:

We can’t emphasise enough how hard today’s roads are. Crashes are a possibility; they’ve been frequent in the past when the Tour has been here and they’ve changed the race. And the climbs a all hard and unforgiving. Anyone who breathed a sigh of relief when they got to Luchon yesterday, thinking they’d got through the Tour, might have to think again.

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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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