Sunday, 17 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 15 Preview

Well, that's it for the Pyrenees for 2011 - pity, as they always provide a great part of the Tour, but it's the Tour de France rather than a tour of the mountains and the climbers have had a chance to strut their stuff. It's only fair that the rest get an opportunity to play now, and today's that chance.

Our start town today is Limoux, home to around 10,000 people and acting as a stage town for the very first time. The region has been inhabited since prehistory, as is made evident by the Neolithic Menhir de la Pierre Droit and wealth of ancient tools discovered in the area. It became an important city for the Romans who called it Flacianum et Limosus and then began to grow larger at the start of the Medieval period with the establishment of the Abbey of Saint Hilaire. Today, the abbey is a quiet and serene place, but the fortifications prove to be more than architectural decoration on close inspection and leave no doubt that the Benedictine order to which it belonged had occasion to resist violent attacks in the past. Today, Limoux is famous for a white wine, Blanquette de Limoux, which is made using the champagne method and is pretty much indistinguishable from champagne as far as scumbags like us are concerned.

There are a couple of fairly technical-looking bends on the outskirts along the D104, just prior to the Basilique de Notre Dame de Marceille, a 14th Century church which fans of gothic architecture would feel gutted about were they to miss it, then a roundabout - however, the road is wide and there shouldn't be any problems even if the peloton is still all together. Pieusse, 1.5km along the road, has a castle which is of particular interest to historians as it wasn't modified or added to after being constructed, thus providing an excellent example of what a Cathar fort would have looked like in the 12th Century.

On the way out of town, the road enters a twisty section with 17 bends rising to a little over 300m before heading back downhill to Saint-Hilaire, through which the route passes. The road narrows and isn't straight, which has to potential to cause problems and riders will need to be wary of street furniture. Approximately 1km outside Saint-Hilaire is a ruined building in a field. It looks to have been a chapel or small church, but there's not enough left to tell for certain - perhaps too small to come to the attention of the cameras, but picturesque. Continuing north on the D104, we pass within a kilometre and a half of Pomas, a small town of around 700 inhabitants and one castle, about which little is known other than that it seems to have first been mentioned early in the 14th Century. As is so often the way in France, it's not too clear who owns and is responsible for the building which in Britain would no doubt have been converted into a tourist trap and so it stands there, locked up and a little uncared-for.

The route soon reaches Leuc, which also has a castle - this one is used as offices and also isn't open to visitors. A talented local trompe-l'œil has painted a number of objects on walls about town including an old man on a bench, a medieval water trough and, best of all, an extremely lifelike antique bicycle which looks for all the world as though someone has left it propped up against the wall upon which it's painted while they go into one of the nearby shops. Just to the east of Couffoulens - which is off the route unfortunately, as it's a very pretty village - we leave the D104 by way of an uncomplicated junction and join the D204 and head through Cavanac which is shown to be the home of many wealthy people by the large number of swimming pools evident on satellite photographs. We don't see much of the village as it's split into two main parts, the southern part a short way to the east of the road and the northern part to the west. Once out of the village, the parcours rejoins the D104.
After 26km, we come to the truly remarkable city of Carcassone, one of the most famous sights in France, and if you watch the Tour for the chateaux believe us when we say this one is going to leave you speechless. A World Heritage Site, the upper town - called Cité de Carcassonne - is an enormous walled fortress which looks exactly how the Romantic artists of the 19th Century pictured Camelot. Words cannot really do justice to the place; anyone visiting anywhere even vaguely nearby is recommended to find an excuse to see it for themselves, because it's so beautiful it's beyond description - and if you're ever lucky enough to be there, think how lucky we are that the place still exists: having been removed from the list of fortifications retaining military value during Napoleonic times, it fell into such a state of disrepair that by 1849 an edict was issued for it to be demolished. This, thankfully, met with strong opposition from prominent figures throughout France and instead the site was restored, perhaps not to its former glory as several details - such as the pointed turret roofs which wouldn't have been used this far south - are entirely incorrect but add to the beauty. The site has been fortified since at least 100BC when the Romans recognised its strategic value, but Neolithic tools found in the area prove that it was inhabited long before then. As if all that's not enough, it also has a spectacular basilica and cathedral.

Exiting via the D6113 and then take the D610 east via Marseillette and Puichéric and, once the riders have negotiated a sharp left-hand turn onto the D2610, to Homps which stands next to a large and roughly circular lake which is a popular place for wind-surfing (this region being subject to strong winds), this being the sort of thing the camera operators in the helicopters love. The riders will have to get through a series of tight corners in the town, avoiding tangles with street furniture, to get to the Avenue du Minervois bridge across the canal before the road turns straight, becomes the D910 and heads for Olonzac. We're now in the department of Hérault, which has been made famous by its rocky gorges. Herault is a very important site in the study of pre-human hominids - traces of the "Chopper Civilisation" (so-called because of their primitive tools, not their primitive 1970s Raleighs) found here date back to 1.57 million years ago.

After 70km, the route reaches Aigne; a small community famous for the Ruelle dans la Circulade which is a unique street formed by ancient houses arranged in a spiral centred on the church and once protected by a drawbridge and portcullis - if you visit Carcassone, it's well worth coming here too for the many ancient buildings which look more like the old parts of Jerusalem or an Arabic casbah than a French village. Getting through the village - and past the Ruelle - requires taking a series of bends beginning at a large roundabout on entering. A few kilometres out of the village, the riders will leave the D910 for the D907, taking a sharp right-hand turn on another roundabout and head through Aigues-Vives (joining the D20) and into Agel which stands in the crook of a sharp bend in the river, the road following its course. Agel has a 12th Century chateau, of which not much remains but what's there is worth seeing. A short way from the town, the road passes by a small but attractive waterfall.

At the 82km ridden point is the stage's only climb, the Category 4 Côte de Villespassans which rises to 204m as the riders cross one of the ridges running across the landscape. This part of France is famous for its capitelles, small dry-stone huts used by shepherds - some are very old and, since most have fallen out of use, are in very poor condition. Next on the route is Saint-Chinian, birthplace of Charles Trenet - the singer of "Boum" fame. Entering town on the D20, there's a very sharp bend (under 45 degrees) onto the D612 which passes through the centre of the town and back onto the D20. 10.5km from here is the feeding station at Cessenon-sur-Orb, another fortified citadel with a very unusual history due to having been inhabited at various times by Romans, Visigoths and even Saracens, the latter having left several Muslim graves in the area. It was the home of people long before that too, as can be seen by the Neolithic dolmens and tumuli in the area. It also has a small suspension bridge, seen in the right of the photograph.

On the eastern side of the town the parcours joins the D36 and heads through a gap in a ridge with some very impressive ruins at Réals, crossing the river and heading on to Murviel-les-Beziers where a ruined castle stands high on an outcrop above the circular medieval centre of the town. The parcours once again becomes technical here as the road leads around the centre, using the D19 and then turns onto the D16 which is poker straight for the first kilometre or so, then deviates sharply to the right before entering Saint-Geniès-de-Fontedit. In the centre of town, the road turns sharply right to a roundabout, then joins the D18 and heads east to another roundabout in an industrial area where the D18 joins the southbound D909, a wide dual-carriageway road which is likely to be mind-numblingly boring, so it's a good thing that the peloton will cover this section extremely rapidly and soon be on the much more pleasant D33 travelling east to Puissalicon which - can you believe it, history fans! - is yet another fortified citadel, this time with two castles. One dates from the 11th Century, the other from the 12th and is still inhabited. An even older tower in the town originally stood alone but was later incorporated into a church.

Since medieval town planners didn't consider 21st Century bicycle races when designing the layout of streets, getting through Puissalicon onto the D18 is quite a difficult process involving several sharp corners. Once on it, the peloton heads south east into Espondeilhan where the route turns north and then east onto the D33 which takes it into Coulobres and then to Abeilhan, a small town with medieval origins and some good buildings dating back to the 9th Century and more technical sections around the corners. Once out of town, the parcours soon joins the D13 to Pezenas, home to more than 30 buildings officially classified as protected historic monuments, several of them private mansions dating from the 16th Century. It's also the birthplace of Alain Robert who has found fame free-climbing skyscrapers, earning himself the nickname Spiderman and a lengthy criminal record in the process.

Alain Robert stops to
make a phonecall while
on his way up a
Hong Kong skyscraper.
The riders leave Pezenas on the D913 before negotiating two roundabouts onto the D613 into Montagnac which is the location of the intermediate sprint. After the last few mountain stages, several sprinters are likely to be in contention for this one - if, as is likely, a breakaway group is still leading the peloton by this point expect the fastest riders to get the lion's share of the points. Mark Cavendish, provided the mountains haven't done him too much damage, will probably be the first of the peloton to cross the line and pick up the best of whatever points are left.

The D5 leads the race to Villeveyrac, site of the Abbaye de Valmagne which was founded by the Cistercian order in 1138. Early on in its history, the abbey enjoyed a ong period of great wealth and fortune which made it very grand, so the buildings left today are impressive. However, parts were built from the poor-quality local stone and are as a result in bad condition despite the site having been classified as a protected monument as long ago as 1947. The route then heads along the D2, back onto another stretch of the D5 which is unconnected to the previous road with the same name (a sort of road enclave) and around a 90 degree left-hander in Montbazin to Cournonsec. Nearby is another Cistercian abbey, l'Abbaye de Vignogoul.

After 179.5km, the route reaches Lavérune, where the 18th Century Château de Lavérune stands on the site of a 16th Century house which in turn replaced a medieval castle. The existing building incorporated elements of both the earlier structures, leading to an interesting mixture of styles. The D5 continues through and out of the town, leading to a roundabout and the D132 which heads north t the D109 where the parcours swings east and into Montpellier. The last section contains many corners, traffic islands and other hazards before entering the final sprint.

Montpellier, home to 266,000 people and the 8th largest city in France, has been a Tour stage town 29 times before today. It's one of the few large French cities without a Roman history, dating from the Middle Ages when regular pirate raids persuaded the inhabitants of Maguelone to move their town further inland. Two villages were rapidly assimilated and the town grew sufficiently important to gain a castle and be fortified in the 10th Century. Montpellier became very wealthy due to its location, which made it a centre for the trading of goods from all around the Mediterranean - this also enriched its culture as it absorbed influence and people from all around the sea, soon developing vibrant Christian, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities who, united in their efforts to do business, co-existed in a manner highly unusual during past times and still very much a lesson to the modern world.

Montpellier remains a wealthy and vibrant city with a rich culture.
Predictions: With the exception of the climbing specialists, this stage could be just about anyone's. It's likely to be a top-name sprinter - probably one from the Isle of Man, in our opinion, due to the flat and perfectly straight final kilometre - but there's a high possibility that the strongest rider in a successful breakaway or even a chancer who feels he's got a chance at the end of the race could end up winning this one. Mikael Delage is a rider very likely to lead a breakaway and could try to take the stage, but we don't rate his chances at a victory.

Weather: The heavy rain earlier on has now cleared up, but strong winds are causing problems and may result in the climbers losing time.

DEVIL WATCH: With the absence of big climbs, it's very difficult to predict likely spots for devillish manifestations. The most likely point is probably the section through the ridge at Reals.

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