Stage 12: Round-up

So, what did stage 12 have to offer?

These Vaches rode some of it on particularly crappy rental bikes and lived to tell the tale, so we can vouch for it being pretty tame over the last quarter, although we weren’t altogether happy with a headwind for the second day running. We started early – leaving Saint-Michel-sur-Loire at around 7.00 – and spotted a number of officials putting up barriers and route markers as we rode. The benefit of having rubbish language skills is that we chose to believe they were offering encouragement to us as we rode past.

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I’m beginning to see the attraction of life on the road in a camper. For a start, you’re not up at sparrow’s trying to get to another town in order to return rental bikes you’d rather chuck in the Loire. Plus, you get to decorate.

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For some reason, the pros don’t have breaks for petit déjeuner and visiting chateaux. Their loss. Particularly on the chateaux (although this morning’s café crème, grand was not bad at all).

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They do, however, get a heads-up when cattle are about. Are they paying attention?

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We were, making friends with more Touraine Limousins. These were just before the village of Vallères, so we hoped they’d be spotted during the stage.

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Images: M Vache

Our path diverged from the Tour route for a bit, but we were lucky to spot these by the Loire:

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Images: M Vache

We pressed on, riding through Villandry to the cheers of those who’d arrived early and were clearly bored. We were so motivated by the fans that we powered on towards the 15km to go marker, ignoring the indignant beeps of the Garmin telling us that we’d veered dangerously from our set veloroute. Didn’t matter, the fans seemed equally excited as we rode around the roundabout to retrace our steps to the turn-off.

Another thing that the pros are really missing out on is the chance to sit and carve off thick slices of saucisson sec and slather great gobs of local rillettes onto crusty bread. I do love that passing cyclists and piétons greet you with “bon appetit!” when they see you eating. Perhaps what they really mean is “who ate all the pies?” but I like to think that they are actually vicariously enjoying lunch. I doubt this happens after a feed zone. Really, I’m starting to think the whole Grand Tour project needs a revamp.

Anyway, this is a stage recap, so recap we will. We arrived in Tours, checked in, and headed for a spot we’d earmarked as giving us the best chance to see some action in close quarters without being right at the pointy end of a sprint finish again. We found a spot on the barrier right on the roundabout as the course turned onto Winston Churchill Boulevard.

While we waited for the caravan, I fired up the portable wifi to see what was happening down the road. My feed was full of Ashton Agar’s Ashes achievements, the jardins of chateaux, and a rather inspired hashtag, #lvdtsongs. I suspect the awesome Buttered Frog was behind this, but am happy to be corrected. [In fact, I have been told that it was the brainchild of the equally talented Tete de la Course.]

Oh, and we had reports of vaches!

Time passed. Madeleines were thrown. Old women were remonstrated with by police as they tried to cross the roundabout. Dutch fans tried to elbow out cow fans. Vaconsoleil buses tried to enter the course. A scooter rider outfoxed police by… well, by just riding down the Route Barrée. There seemed to be no consequences. Festive mood and all that. (Unless you’re an old lady.)

Suddenly!

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IMG_2642Images: M Vache

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We were rather discombobulated that this happened right in front of our eyes, and forgot to pay attention to the race as it dashed towards the finish. There were more crashes (I’ve since seen that EBH is out of the tour) and a sprint finish between the fastest man in the world… and the man who beat him today. Kittel and his magnificent hair took stage honours. No jerseys change hands, and Flecha gets the satisfaction of most-combative for his attack late in proceedings.

Les Vaches en Tour is en transit tomorrow to Lyon. Depending on luggage storage friendliness, we might try to get a look at the start, but the next stage we’ll see in person will be the finish of Stage 14.

 

Stage 12: Fougères > Tours

218km with no categorised climbs. That’s what we have to look forward to today. Mark Cavendish is bound to be a wee bit keen for stage honours here but there are other stage hunters in the mix, so the finish should be fast and furious. We’ll be hoping that the white jersey will give the Cow that Won’t Quit some extra oomph in the closing moments and we will be somewhere near the finish adding our voices to the fans screaming for… more free saucisson!

I am a little leery of predicting cows. Just look what happened when I actually went properly cow hunting along the route the other day. I can, however, confidently predict chateaux as the Ps will be fired up to rattle off facts and figures about the sprawling estates in these parts. Still, we’ve been riding in the area for the past couple of days (the Tour will go through Langeais, where we’re currently resting) and we have seen cattle. There are no breeds specific to this particular region, although the local buses bear the name Anjou, so you might want to keep your eyes peeled for the Maine-Anjou (we haven’t spotted any, yet!).

We did spot some lovely beasts along the Loire yesterday and today, though. These Charolais were a little shy, but perhaps they were protecting the calves.

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P1040097Images: M Vache

Today was Limousin day. The local farmers do seem to like to hide their cattle behind scrubby hedges, but we braved the brambles to make the acquaintance of these cows today.

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Now, we all know that the Ps commentary priorities can be a bit whack, so they are probably more likely to take an interest in the local nuclear power plant than they are some beef cattle, no matter how delicious they are (and they are – I had some amazing veau for dinner). If, perchance, this does happen, scrutinise the nearish landscape as this is where we spotted the second group.

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Images: Injera

This area is obviously well known for its wine, however it does a pretty good line in cheese, too. Unfortunately they favour the milk of the chèvre. Tasty, but not really in our area. Still, let’s try a little diversity, shall we? I know the Saint Maure is fairly widely available outside France, so feel free to grab some of that. We won’t judge you (we’ll probably join you!). Of course, if you’re not completely over butter after Brittany, a tarte tatin is a local specialty and should give you a sugar high to see you through to Tours.

Stage 11: Round-up

The Vache tour of the Loire valley continued today and, I have to be honest, if there’d been a sag wagon on the horizon I’d have flagged it down and hitched a ride. Perhaps it’s mid-tour fatigue. Perhaps it was knowing that, even though we’d spent the night in the petit-est chambre in the chateau, it was still grander than any lodgings we’d had to date or would have again. Perhaps it was the saddle on the rental bike, the manufacturers of which should be charged with – at the very least – wanton cruelty. Perhaps it was passing through the Most Beautiful Village In France early on in the day’s stage and having nothing but a nuclear power plant, a shadeless, shoulderless road and a headwind to look forward to. At any rate (let’s be honest, it was sloooooow) we reached our Auberge by early afternoon and prioritised the bar over the TV in our stuffy room.

Fortunately we had internet in the bar so we knew what was going on in both the cricket and the Tour and when to head back upstairs for the final time triallists.

A time trial and the Ashes at the same time. How focussed can we possibly be?

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Image: The Guardian

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.

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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.

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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!

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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:

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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?