First of the mountain stages – on Bastille Day! How would the riders fare after a rest day?
Are we all feeling rested? The energy of the first week sputtered out towards the end but I am feeling excited about the racing to come. We start the second third of the race in the Haute-Pyrénées and finish 167km later at the top of our first HC climb for the Tour at La Pierre-Saint-Martin in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques. It’s not just the first HC climb this Tour; it’s the first time this climb has been in the race. Before the riders get there, they will warm up on three Cat 4 climbs. It’s Bastille Day, so expect crazy attacks by the French riders.
If we’re in the Pyrénées, we’ll be looking for the Gascon cow.
Image: Groupe Gascon
Another climbing stage today and another HC summit finish! What more could we ask for? Well, *ahem* vaches, that’s what. Don’t be distracted by the fact that the first marker on the stage profile is Nay, or that Peter Warren has tweeted pictures of moutons, we are climbing Tourmooooolet, goddammit, and we know there are cows in these parts.
If we catch a glimpse of a local breed today, it will be the Gascon.
Image: Père Igor
This is a hardy mountain breed that is well adapted to the harsh Pyrenean environment. They usually spend winters in the lowlands, but are found in the highlands during summer. Let’s hope the local farmers let them out to play. Béarnaise sauce is a speciality of the region – ignore the advice to spoon it over poached eggs or roasted fish. A steak is obviously the way to go.
Who to watch? Nibali will no doubt be up there, and – if he keeps his full-pois promise, Majka will want to show off the kit. Doubtless Valverde will give us a chance to hiss and Nico Roche will allow the Ps another chance to reminisce. I’ll be looking out for the French Siamese twins…
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 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.
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!
We come back from the rest day having woken to the now-traditional news of a positive test, this time involving Fränk Schleck. Seems a stretch to think that, given his performance this year, he has been enhanced in any way but I guess all that will unfold over the coming days and weeks. As it stands at the time of writing, 155 riders will start in Pau today. The testing bombshell aside, this is the stage we’ve been waiting for! The 197km route with its four climbs – two HCs and two Cat 1s – will provide opportunities for Evans, Nibali and perhaps even Froome to establish a claim to the yellow jersey. Of course Wiggins will be defending his position, but his result today will possibly be buffered by the calculation that he can make up small losses in the final time trial. For the other GC contenders, today and tomorrow will be key.
The first climb to challenge the riders is the 16.4km Col d’Aubisque, which comes on the heels of the early intermediate sprint point at 26km. The climb starts at around 37km and once the riders reach the summit, there’s a descent – with a bump in the form of the Col du Soulor – to the feed station at Adast. The 19km climb to the summit of the Col du Tourmelet starts just after Luz St Sauveur at 101.5km, although it looks pretty much all uphill from Adast. After descending Tourmelet, the Col d’Aspin climb starts immediately; rinse and repeat for the final climb of the day, the Col de Peyresourde.
Well, what would be rather nice if we could spot round here, there is a very well-known rare race of cows, the belle Gascon. They’re actually white cows, but the youngsters have a brown coat.
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.
Image: Farming in France