Sunday, 24 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 21 Preview

Cadel Evans, the first Australian to
win the Tour de France, will wear the
yellow jersey into Paris.
Today marks a whole three weeks since the Tour de France set off along the slippery flagstones of the Passage de Gois and 3335.5km travelled, with 95 to go. There has been tragedy and joy, surprise and confirmation of the expected, vendettas and self-sacrifice in the name of comrades; but what this Tour delivered most, like all Tours before it, was wonder and beauty.

The final stage, since 1975 ending at the Champs-Élysées, is not as other stages - largely ceremonial, the yellow jersey is traditionally not attacked and the wearer permitted to ride into Paris swathed in glory. It could be attacked, but with Andy Schleck the closest rider to Cadel Evans that won't happen today. The King of the Mountains has already been decided which leaves only the Points competition - which can, and with just 15 point between Mark Cavendish and Jose Joaquin Rojas this year possibly will, be decided on the last stretch.

The start line is in Créteil, one of the so-called Gateways to Paris and a stage town for the third time. Once standing alone, the town is contiguous (as much due to its own expansion as that of Paris) with the capital and is located a mere 11.5km from Kilometre Zero near the West Front doors of Notre Dame, the official centre of Paris and the point from which all French roads are measured. The town, as Cristoïlum, was first mentioned in a catalogue of martyrs compiled by Benedictine monks in the 9th Century; Créteil earning its place in the catalogue as it had been the site of the martyrdom of Saints Agoard and Aglibert some half a millennium before. The early adoption of Christianity and the "Crist-" component of the latinised name have given rise to somewhat fanciful theories that the town is named after Christ or even that it has some connection to him, but in reality it's more likely to be derived via various modifications from the Celtic words crist (ridge) and ialo (glade). The modern variant dates from around 1406.

The polissoir.
However, the locale has been inhabited since much earlier times - the discovery of palaeolithic remains in the area are evidence of a culture dating back to at least 10,000 years ago, analogous with the decline of the Würm glaciation at the end of the last Ice Age. On display in the town is a Neolithic "polissoir," a huge stone similar to a modern whetstone used to sharpen and polish knives and other bladed implements. Bronze Age axes heads from the region are displayed at the British Museum in London.

History from the Middle Ages onwards was not always been kind to Créteil: it was attacked ruined by Anglo-Burgundian troops in the 15th Century, looted by Huguenots in the 16th, evacuated due to violence in the 17th and subject to famine in the 18th. Rich Parisians began building grand villas in the town early in the 19th Century, only for it to be attacked and occupied by Russian forces in 1814 and then razed to the ground by Prussian troops in 1870, returning it to little more than a rural backwater, then bombed heavily by the US Air Force during World War 2, causing several deaths amog the local civilian population. It has suffered numerous major floods, the worst of which took place in 1830 and 1910 and the last in 1970.

Les Choux, an example of the fine modern architecture to be
seen in Creteil. (No, I don't know why it's named after the
cabbage either.)
It began to grow in the years following World War 2 and the population increased by almost 17,000 in the eight years after 1954. This period saw rapid urbanisation, including the development of the Mont-Mesly prefecture which is now home to more than 23,000 people, ensuring that the town now boasts some of the finest modern architecture in France. Yet it has much to offer in the way of older buildings, too - the tower of Église Saint-Christophe dates from the 11th Century and is adjoined to a 13th Century church, the whole being built atop an 8th Century crypt which is used to house relics of Saints Agoard and Aglibert. Excavations around the church have revealed graves from the 9th Century. Créteil is also home to the largest dovecote in the country, with space for 1500 birds, which with unusual consideration towards the importance of heritage for the time was moved in 1971 to allow new houses to be constructed on its original site.

The stage begins on the Avenue du General de Gaulle (D1B), from where Les Choux can be seen, and loops about a roundabout before travelling south-east along the wide avenue with its grassy central reservation and large bronze monument to the Resistance. It soon turns south and passes alongside Lac de Créteil, formerly a gypsum quarry that was allowed to flood after decommission in the 1970s, now picturesque and as important a site for leisure as it is for nature. On the other side of the road is the Centre Commercial Créteil Soleil, which looks for all the world like a component from a giant computer motherboard. It then negotiates another roundabout before turning left into a tree-lined avenue and past Le Port 59, a perfectly circular artificial bay on the lake surrounded by some terrifying expensive apartments but belonging really to the swans who live there.

Soon it turns into the Rue Falkirk, named after the Scottish town with which Créteil has been twinned since 1983, then south and south-east again along the Avenue François Mitterrand which takes us over several pedestrians crossings to a crossroads where the parcours veers sharply north-east via a tight corner. It turns north-west and north-east again along the Rue des Corbieres past an area of wooded parkland and past a tall modern water tower, named in a quite charming way the Château d'eau. It then turns north and passes through a narrow passage under a building, which is going to constrict the peloton tightly and may lead to accidents if too many riders attempt to pass through at the same time, and into another area of parkland where modern architecture - including a truly remarkable building at the junction with the Rue Rene Arcos - sits side-by-side with trees, the combination working well and forming an attractive whole.

Eglise Saint-Christophe
A very tight left-hand corner, potentially lethal when wet, leads to another easier one and then an equally technical turn onto the Avenue du Dr. Paul Casalis - home to Tov'Mie which, should you ever happen to be in Paris and find yourself of kosher bread products, I can personally assure you sells the finest bagels in the city. At the end of the road is a traffic island with some trees where the peloton changes direction north east on another tight corner and heads along the Avenue du General Leclerc (D19) which is long, almost perfectly straight and has few hazards until it reaches the junction with the D48E, where the route turns left towards the west. Sights to look out for include a fountain, the Église Saint-Christophe and, in parts, views to the river which runs a short distance away to the east.

Turning left, the route follows the D48E Aveue de la Rebublique until a bridge across a railway where the road becomes the Rue Emile Zola, a section which has many attractive buildings such as the Hôtel-de-Ville at Maisons-Alfort and Camelias, one of the few older commercial buildings left in the area. The parcours crosses the Seine by the imposing Pont du Port à l'Anglais suspension bridge, with a main span of 124m. Suspension bridges always make for excellent footage as the peloton passes across with the helicopters able to get shots from all sorts of interesting angles; with Paris as a backdrop, the results are virtually guaranteed to be even more spectacular than usual here. A big roundabout on the western bank takes the riders onto the Avenue du President Salvador Allende which leads to another railway bridge and on to Avenue Jean Jaures - named after the very same Jean Jaures associated with Carmaux which the Tour reached right back at the end of Stage 10. There's a large and expertly-done mural of a fierce-looking heron on a wall where the Avenue becomes the Avenue Henri Barbusse (D55A).

The Avenue Henri Barbusse is short and ends with another roundabout at the Place de la Liberation, the location of the excellent MAC/VAL contemporary gallery and assorted public works of art. The building itself is a good example of Bauhaus-inspired minimal modernism, as much a work of art as many of its contents. The parcours turns right onto the Avenue Eugene Pelletan (D5) which heads north-west, becoming the Boulevard de Stalingrad after a short while, then the Avenue de Verdun and running straight and wide for some distance before turning sharply left into the Rue Henri Martin which carries the race onto the wide Avenue du Paris for a short way before they turn north-east onto the D54 as it passes through the Cimetière Parisien d'Ivry, last resting place of Louis Caput - third place in the 1942 Circuit de France, one of the stage races that replaced the Tour while it was suspended during WW2.

Fort de Charenton.
The D54 takes a series of sharp corners before the parcours changes to the D50 past the Place Voltaire to the Parc des Cormailles, where there is an artificial hill with a spiral path stretching to the top, then back over the railway and on to the Boulevard Paul Vaillant Couturier (D19) and onto the Pont d'Ivry which carries the peloton across the Seine once more and onwards for a second visit to the Avenue du General Leclerc before switching to the Avenue Gambetta running straight and full of street furniture to the Pont de Maisons-Alfort which crosses one of the most attractive stretches of river in Paris. The route then passes by the docks which, although much gentrified, are still home to working boat yards allowing all manner of watercraft old and modern to be seen as they wait for repairs. The peloton will then join another section of the Rue Henri Barbusse along the D123 heading south-east towards the Avenue de la Liberation (D45). Nearby is the Fort de Charenton, built according to the government to help prevent Paris ever again being subject to the foreign occupations that took place following the decline of Napoleon and according to the left-wing opposition to subdue the populace should they ever again rise up against the establishment.

After switching north-east, another bridge takes the peloton onto the Avenue Charles Floquet, then the N4 nd a long stretch of the N303 to the D30 just south of two river islands, then across the Pont de Bry from where there are good views to the Quai d'Artois with its fine homes. Travelling north-west on the Avenue du General de Gaulle the peloton heads straight to the Rond Point where the riders switch onto the D44 heading west past the Parc des Epivans, an athletics centre, then the Boulevard Gallenini and Avenue de la Republique. A sweeping bend turns south to the Rue de France, with the vast Residence Val de France housing development, a series of tower blocks joined together and winding around.

Chateau de Vincennes
The parcours changes south-east and then south on the Avenue de la Pepiniere into the Bois de Vincennes park where it passes to the north and west of the not-very-picturesque Fort Neuf, which remains the property of the French Ministry of Defence and to which access is limited. On the other side of the road is the far more aethetically-pleasing Château de Vincennes, established in the 14th Century and much redeveloped in the 17th. In addition to being a fortress, the chateau has served as a porcelain factory and a prison - it was once housed the Marquis de Sade and, in the early 20th Century, Mata-Hari who was executed here. Although the Tour is using only a small part of the park, it's very beautiful overall despite the Fort and the helicopters will no doubt be making the most of it. The Avenue Daumesnil past the artificial lake with its two islands and Avenue de Saint-Maurice past the Ancient Cemetery take the peloton back out of the park, where it reaches the Charenton-le-Pont and officially enters Paris.

A very welcome sight after 3430.5km!
The route follows the N6 along the banks of the river, passing the Iles Saint-Louis and de la Cite and Notre-Dame, crossing the Pont Royale just west of the Louvre at one of the best places to view the museum and Jardin des Tuileries. From now on, the peloton are on the final circuits, during which they will travel around the Place de la Concorde and up the Avenue des Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, around and back down nine times times, each circuit being 6km, with the intermediate sprint coming after the third circuit. The Grand Finale is at the Arc following 95km, estimated to be some time shortly after 17:00 local time.

And that, folks, is your lot for the next 49 weeks. C'est la vie. Luckily, it's not long until the Vuelta a Espana.

Weather: It should be dry over the entire parcours, but showers are an outside possibility. Temperatures will be around 22 degrees C, which is ideal for cycling, but winds of up to 20kmph are just strong enough to be a pain when blowing from the side or the front.

Predictions: How about we go out on a limb and say Cadel Evans? Who, though, will win the intermediate sprint? Many people are going to try, especially Jose Joaquin Rojas who is just 15 points from winning the overall sprinter's competition - but he has little chance of beating Mark Cavendish.

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