The first week of the Tour is in the record books. It began on the historic island of Corsica and then headed on over to the mainland of France, where it will remain for the duration of the Tour.
Race organizers set out to make this, the 100th edition of the Tour de France, the most amazing – and most French – Tour yet. For the first time since 1988, the entire Tour will take place solely on French soil, with the goal of highlighting the history and beauty of their country.
In the words of Christian Prudhomme, the Director of the Tour de France, this year will showcase “the whole of France, of every kind of France, of every French people too.”
Yesterday’s day of rest brought riders to the city of Saint-Nazaire in the Loire Atlantique. And that’s where we’ll begin this week of our virtual tour of the Tour…
After nine days of racing, the first week of the Tour ended with a rest day in Saint-Nazaire. The city is in the Loire Atlantique département, named for the picturesque Loire River that runs through it and the Atlantic ocean that borders it. Time has fashioned a mosaic of landscapes and cultures in this region: the effervescent Nantes, Guérande and its saltmarshes, Clisson and its Italian architecture, La Baule, Pornichet, Le Pouliguen and Pornic, popular beach resorts.
Le Croisic and Piriac-sur-mer… classed as small towns of character, Saint-Nazaire, a metamorphosed town, resolutely turned towards the sea… the great maritime Port of Nantes in Saint Nazaire is the fourth largest in France. It is also here that over the decades the giants of sea and air have been built but the town has also diversified its know-how into marine renewable energies.
Day ten of the tour begins in Saint-Gildas-des-Bois, a city in the Loire-Atlantique which takes its name from a pine forest planted at the time of the reign of Louis-Philippe. This is the Tour’s first visit to this French city. From here, today’s route will wind through Bretagne, of which the Loire Valley was once a part (and whose separation is still contested).
Bretagne, or Brittany, is the French region with the longest coastline. It is traditionally divided between the seaside regions (Armor) and the hinterland (Argoat). While altitudes are low, the landscape is rugged and hilly in the inside and smoother near the shore. You’ll see this contrast perfectly highlighted as the riders pass through the département of Morbihan. The region is remarkable for its history and its strong culture. It is inspired by its language, Breton, its Celtic customs and music.
In Morbihan, riders will pass through Guer-Coëtquidan. This town is a major military site and currently has approximately 12,000 soldiers training there every year. It is home to École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, often referred to as Saint-Cyr, which is the foremost French military academy. Here, riders will be rewarded an honor. In the words of ASO Director, Jean-François Pescheux:
This 100th edition of the Tour de France will feature another great symbol of national life: for the first time, the riders will pass through the heart of the Coëtquidan military camp, where the elite cadets from the Saint-Cyr military school will line up in their splendid uniforms to honour them. The moment will provide some unforgettable, moving and typically French images.
After an already scenic and historic day, day ten will finish in Saint-Malo, a destination that welcomes more than two million visitors each year. People are drawn to this area by its historic castle and ramparts as well as the fine sand beaches that can be found on the Emerald Coast.
Of this historic day, Jean-François Pescheux says:
After a plane transfer and a rest day at Saint-Nazaire, the Tour heads into Western France once again for a magnificent finish beneath Saint-Malo’s ramparts. It’s fair to say that this is a stage designed with tradition in mind, in as much as it will enable us to honour the memory of Louison Bobet* and pay tribute to Bernard Hinault.**
* Louis ‘Louison’ Bobet was a French professional road racing cyclist. He was the first great French rider of the post-war period and the first rider to win the Tour de France in three successive years, from 1953 to 1955.
** Bernard Hinault is a former French cyclist known for five victories in the Tour de France. He is one of only five cyclists to have won all three Grand Tours, and the only cyclist to have won each more than once.
One symbol follows another. After Coëtquidan and Saint-Malo, we will be setting up camp in front of Mont Saint-Michel for another stage that promises to be spectacular.
Our countryside will get a tremendous publicity boost if the sun decides to come to the party as well. Mont Saint-Michel is France’s second most popular tourist attraction after the Eiffel Tower, and images of it will be broadcast to two billion viewers across the world.
Mont Saint-Michel is known for the beauty of its architecture as well as its unique situation as a tidal island. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site along with the bay that surrounds it, more than 3 million people visit Mont Saint-Michel each year, making it the most visited place in Normandy and the second in France after the Île-de-France.
The Abbey, a veritable masterpiece of medieval architecture, took five centuries to complete. There are also its ramparts and its main street where the tradition of the shopkeepers from the Middle Ages continues. The structure of Mont Saint-Michel exemplifies the feudal society that constructed it. With God at the top along with the abbey and monastery, followed by the great halls, then stores and housing and, at last, outside the walls, the housing for fishermen and farmers.
According to legend, in 708, Bishop Aubert received orders from the Archangel Michael to build a church on the Monte Tombe, the original site of Mont Saint-Michel, in his glory. When the Bishop repeatedly failed to do so, the Archangel pierced a hole in the Bishop’s skull with his finger and the Bishop then understood that he had not been dreaming. The Bishop’s skull is kept at Saint-Gervais church, in Avranches, where stage 11 of the Tour begins before finishing at Mont Saint-Michel.
Stage 12 of the Tour begins in Fougères. The third largest city in the département of Ille-et-Vilaine. The town is renowned for its castle, an 11th century feudal castle. The town itself is situated on the edge of a 1700 hectare forest. It is also home to the oldest belfry in Brittany, many religious buildings, picturesque streets and sites marked by the passage of famous writers such as Chateaubriant, Hugo and Balzac.
Fougères is also home to St Sulpice, a church directly linked to the castle. Its construction spread over four centuries, between 1380 and 1760. In the course of time, it was enlarged to the west and its flamboyant Gothic style became more classical with the years. The church shelters a statue of Notre-Dame-des-Marais (Our Lady of the Marshes), for long venerated by the people of Fougères.
Loire Valley – Centre – Auvergne
As the Tour departs Normandie this morning, it will quickly pass through Bretagne on its way to the Loire Valley again. The bulk of Stage 12 will be through the Loire Valley, this time further inland in the region of Pays-de-la-Loire.
The river Loire is the common ground between the five départements in this region. Its 280km make it the world’s largest site listed on the UNESCO World Heritage. Historical sites and monuments in the Loire Valley are countless – from the Medieval castles in Angers, Nantes or Saumur or the Renaissance jewels in Brissac or Montsoreau.
Leaving the Pays-de-la-Loire, the Tour enters the Centre region. This region of France is blessed with a great variety of landscapes and natural lands: forests, ponds and bogs, along with the Loire River and its sandy banks lined with woods. The Orleans forest is the biggest in France, while thousands of pools and ponds can be found in the Sologne and Brenne areas. This region gets its variety from the Loire River, which flows across the region westwards, and on its many tributaries.
Within the Centre region is the département of Indre-et-Loire. It is more or less the old province of Touraine, an area rich in heritage and known for the 80-some castles which made the region famous.
At the heart of the Touraine is the city of Tours, where Stage 12 of the Tour will finish and Stage 13 will begin. Tours was the capital of the Kingdom of France under Roman rule of the Gaul empire.
This superb green land where the castles of the Loire nestle has been known as “the garden of France” since the 15th century. Tours also boasts the Saint-Gatien Cathedral, the Palace of the Archbishops, the Charlemagne Tower and the medieval timbered houses from the Old Tours district among the 500 listed buildings in the city.
The path of the Tour continues south through the Centre region. Stage 13 ends at Saint-Amand-Montrond. It is found in the heart of France, on the banks of the Berry canal, the Cher and the Marmande rivers, near to the Meillant and Tronçais forests. Saint-Amand-Montrond’s history has largely been linked to that of its fortress dating from the 13th century.
The town is also famous for its “City of Gold,” a glass and steel pyramid that is testament to the fact that for more than a century this area specialized in jewellery. Even today, nine companies specializing in gold work as well as a professional school dedicated to jewellery call Saint-Amand-Montrond home.
Stage 14 begins in a new region of France. The town of Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule is in the Auvergne region. The city itself is known for its AOC classed vineyard that stretches over 19 communities and more than 600 hectares. The grapevine’s presence here dates back to the Gallo-Roman era and its wine has been served at the tables of the French kings.
Heading for Higher Ground
Leaving the flat terrain of the Loire Valley and central France, the Tour now enters the Rhône-Alpes region. This region is second in France – and sixth in Europe – by its size, economic importance and population.
Stage 14 takes us to the city of Lyon. Along with its suburbs is second largest continuous urban and industrially developed area in France outside of Paris and its surrounding suburbs. Lyon has a significant role in the history of cinema because of Auguste and Louis Lumière, who invented cinematography there.
Legend says that the Virgin Mary saved Lyon from the plague. To thank her, a statue was built on Fourviere hill. On the day it was erected, the whole city was lit by candles that its citizens had put at their windows. As a tribute to their protector, the people of Lyon continue to light thousands of lanterns and lamps from their windows or balconies in December. Every year in December since 1989, Lyon has been celebrating the Fête des Lumières, or Festival of Lights. Attracting four million visitors from France and abroad, who come to see the town illuminated in light, Lyon has earned the title of Capital of Lights.
The Old Lyon was the first preserved sector in France in 1964 and was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. In the heart of Old Lyon, the St Jean cathedral, also known as St Jean Primatial cathedral, mixes Romanesque and Gothic styles. Its construction took place over three centuries between 1175 and 1481.
One of the most interesting items in the church is an astronomic clock designed in the late 16th century. It gives time, date, the positions of the moon, the sun, the earth and the main stars above Lyon. The given date is expected to remain accurate until 2019 and, given the beliefs of the time, the sun is turning around the earth.
With the creation of Vélo’V in 2005, Lyon was the first city to adopt a city-wide bike sharing program. Besides its network of bike lanes that continues to grow (currently to over 4,000 bicycles), Lyon has on its horizon in 2014 the longest tunnel in Europe for use by cyclists and pedestrians. At over 2km long, it will be reserved as an environmentally friendly means of transport.
Stage 14 was only a prelude to what’s to come in stage 15 of this year’s Tour. Stage 15, scheduled for Bastille Day, is the longest stage of the 100th Tour. After a grueling 221km, riders face the iconic slopes of Mont Ventoux in the Haute-Alpes département in Provence.
Mont Ventoux and its white rocks reach a height of 1,912m and extend 25km from west to east. Reforested at the end of the 19th century, the slopes of Ventoux make up a Mediterranean forest ecosystem. The ‘Giant of Provence,” is ideal for hikers and cyclists.
Mont Ventoux gets its name from the high winds that can rip through, especially with the mistral which subjects the areas of Provence, Languedoc and Montpellier to mighty winds. In fact, at Mont Ventoux, the wind blows at 90+ kph (56+ mph) 240 days of the year.
Riders could battle the winds and extreme heat. What is a certainty is that they face a ferocious climb. An HC, or Hors Catégorie (“beyond categorization), Ventoux will require riders to climb 1,582 vertical meters over a distance of 21.5k. The average grade for 20.8km of that climb is 7.5%, but after the first 5k, riders will only have one kilometer of “reprieve” at a 5.5% incline. The duration of the final 15.8k is above a 7.5% incline, with 10.6% being the highest. The finish line itself finishes on a 9.5% incline.
Of this historic day, ASO Director Jean-François Pescheux says, “Never will a rest day have been as well deserved! After the Ventoux, the riders will be able to breathe a little easier for 24 hours in the Vaucluse.”
After finishing atop of Mont Ventoux, riders will get a day of rest in Vaucluse. This département in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region gets its name from the Latin “vallis clausa” meaning “closed valley.” From the top of the Ventoux to the hills of Luberon, from the plateau of Sault to the gorges of the Nesque, between the rivers of the Sorgues area and the scrubs of the Mounts of Vaucluse, this area is naturally diverse. Benefitting from 2,800 hours of sunshine each year and rich soil, it has for a long time been a rural area centered around a farming economy.
While it is the smallest département in Provence, it offers a great number of delicacies that are celebrated in the region, country and beyond. Some include the muscat grapes of the Ventoux, olives of Nyons, melons in Cavaillon, strawberries in Carpentras, cherry or truffle in the Mounts of Venasque. And don’t forget this area’s world famous wines: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Cairanne, Rasteau or Beaumes-de-Venise.
We’ll continue our virtual tour of the Tour next week, following the route of the third and final week of the Tour.
In case you missed it, read about week one of the Tour here.
For more on the 2013 Tour de France, check out the following links:
- For the Tour schedule, notable days and major players, check out our summary of the 100th Edition of the Tour.
- For complete Tour coverage, visit the official Tour de France site
- NBC’s coverage of the 2012 Tour
- Detailed analysis of the route for the 2013 Tdf
- Bicycling.com’s list of most critical, can’t-miss stages of the 2013 Tour
- Bicycling.com’s rankings
- Bicycling.com’s interview with Tour favorite Chris Froome
- For the biggest Tour-a-philes out there (who speak French), here’s a link to the official ASO presentation of the 2013 Tour de France
In addition to being our resident fitness guru, Joy Sherrick is also a self-proclaimed Francophile.