Wednesday 6 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 5 Preview

It's funny that the Festival des Vieilles Charrues, which takes place annually in Brittany, isn't better known over here in Blighty. It's not that far across the water and, among many attractions, offered Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, the Chemical Brothers, Barrington Levy, Kaiser Chiefs and the extremely talented Polly Jean Harvey - sufficient to attract no less than 240,000 fans which is significantly more than Glastonbury. It being France, the food was probably better than the sweaty lentil burgers you get at British festivals, too. I bet the toilets were grim though.

Stage profile for today: not that hilly but not that flat either.
Anyway, the festival takes place just outside Carhaix in the Finistère department of Brittany, a part of France with more than a few similarities to the far west of Cornwall which lies not too far to the north and with which the Bretons have maintained trade and cultural links since prehistoric times, which also happens to host the start of today's Stage 5 of the Tour de France. Yesterday saw the first hills of the race, tiny ones in comparison to what's coming when the riders reach the Massif Central and virtually non-existent compared to the real biggies when they get to the Haute Pyrenees and Alps admittedly, but hills they definitely were; that this was the case been made plain by Alberto Contador, a man who gains altitude like a BAC Lightning, choosing it as the stage upon which he was going to claw back some of the time lost during a decidedly unfortunate start to the Tour. That he did, too, coming a very close second place and giving stage winner Cadel Evans a scare. Today is more of the same: the hills are little ones, rising to no more than 281m at Côte de Gurunhuel - which despite lack of altitude is a Category 4, so it won't be without challenge - but there are plenty of them.
It's a well-known fact that the Bretons
like their menhirs.

As is always the case, the parcours takes plenty of French sights and this part of the world is particularly interesting for those who like to look at big bits of stone stuck into the ground for unknown purposes - the road passes by the unusual limestone (most are granite) menhir known as Min ar Groac'h which is worth looking out for at the side of the D54 road leading past Plourac'h. The distinctly-not-very-French placenames, incidentally, arise from the fact that the Breton language Brezhoneg is a Brythonic Celtic language closely related to Welsh and Cornish. The first climb of any note, albeit uncategorised, comes just past the 25km point at Callac where there is a picturesque ruined church (those ancient Celts who erected Min ar Groac'h might take some pleasure were they still around to see that their menhirs are in much better shape overall than the monuments of this newly-come Christianity) and a Gallo-Roman bridge. A few kilometres further north-west is the uncommonly attractive village of Plougonver, home to around 700 people and the location of beautiful granite houses surrounding the church. The village is spread out along the road, meaning that there are fields literally a stone's throw from the centre which makes it feel even smaller than it is and the locals have taken great care to retain the beauty and character of the place.

There's no chance for the riders to stop for a spot of sight-seeing though because they'll soon be upon that Category 4 climb which comes at the 45km point. The cruise downhill - longer than the ascent, look out for the three towers at Guingamp along the way, all that remain of the three castles which once stood in the town  - will be a welcome chance to recharge the batteries because it's not much further to the start of the intermediate sprint at Goudelin, a bit of  pity because the cameras will be concentrating on what Mark Cavendish is up to (winning it, we suspect, as any early breakaways who fancy getting the points like they have done in the last stages may find themselves pulled back in on Côte de Gurunhuel) rather than letting us see the Chapelle Notre Dame de L'Isle which has some Flamboyant (a 14th/15th Century architectural style, known as Decorated in England) ogee arch doorways and is thus of interest if you happen to find that sort of stuff interesting. However, this is a bike race, so the cameras are doing what they should.

Bet you'd like to live here - but you don't. Er - unless you do, that is, in which case you probably consider yourself rather fortunate to live in Guingamp.
Shortly afterwards is the feeding station at Pludual, site of le Manoir de Périmorvan which is either ruined or still inhabited, depending on which source you choose to believe. No doubt today's footage shall reveal the truth because if there's one thing the camera operators in the helicopters like, it's chateaux. It's then just a little way further until the route swings to the east and joins the D786 at Plouha, following the coastline for the remainder of the stage. This is an exceptionally beautiful region even by French standards with long, sandy beaches and dramatic rocks which must have taken more than their fair share of ships that sought shelter from Atlantic storms along this part of the coast. About a kilometre off the coast are the tiny Iles-Saint-Quay, which are even tidier at high tide when they become a series of rocky outcrops, the largest and driest of which have tiny cottages perched on top. You seriously do not want to miss this bit.

St.-Brieuc cathedral looks as much like Nosferatu's
castle as the home of saintly relics.

There are a few smallish climbs, as would be expected from a rocky coast, leading on to Saint-Brieuc which is named after a medieval Welsh monk who brought Christianity to the area in the 6th Century and founder of the local cathedral which today houses some of his relics. Two years ago, large quantities of algae washed up on the beach here and began to rot, emitting gases so noxious that they killed a couple of dogs and a horse (and, indirectly, the driver of a truck carrying a load of the algae who was overcome and crashed). Some kilometres further on is Pleneuf val Andre, a built-up resort with one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in Northern Europe and, just off the coast, the rocky islet of Le Verdelet which, if the weather continues being windy (and it looks like it will) promises dramatic scenes. There's an S-shaped causeway leading to the islet which, after the fun on Passage du Gois a few days ago, the riders will be glad they're not required to ride.

Erquy. Devil country.

Next up is more winding coastal roads, taking in Erquy which is situated around a picturesque bay and has a very flirtatious-looking mermaid on its coat of arms.

DEVIL WATCH: Being located around 12km from the finish with small hills and wooded sections, Erquy looks the ideal place to spot German devils as well as flirty mermaids. We reckon he'll make an appearance just as the Tour leaves the town for the headland seen on the right of the photo. On the other hand, for sheer dramatic effect he might show up somewhere on Cap Fréhel, though as the location of the finish it's not natural Devil country.

Cap Fréhel looks to be the highlight of the stage. Unusually, it's not a reasonably-sized town as is typical of Tour finishes but a windswept, rocky peninsula with two lighthouses which is well worth looking up on Google Earth ( 48°41'13.07"N  2°19'3.51"W). The helicopters are going to get some stunning footage of the cliffs here and it may well prove to be the most beautiful stage finish of the 2011 Tour.

Weather - Local weather looks set to be much the same as yesterday. The wind is 30kmph in Carhaix right now, and though it's not raining light-to-moderate rain is forecast throughout Brittany by early afternoon. The wind should drop slightly, but crosswinds along the coastal sections will liven things up a bit. However, it looks like the wind is pretty much settled into blowing from the south west, which means for a lot of the route it's going to be a tailwind.

Big, strong and fast is what you need to
be to win a stage like this one. That's
your cue, Thundergod.

Predictions: Alberto Contador made an heroic effort to claw his way up the standings yesterday and finished to close to winner Cadel Evans that it's wasn't immediately apparent who had won. He's now in 41st overall and may want to improve that further today - if he does then, well, he's Contador and if he avoids accidents he'll probably be in at least the top three. This could be a good stage for Thor Hushovd too, since he's no doubt rather enjoying his time in the yellow jersey and would probably like to wear it for a bit longer. He may be better known as a sprinter, but while this stage does have climbs it's not really one for the grimpeurs and a sprinter with his physical strength could do well here. Mark Cavendish is the most likely lad for the intermediate sprint. He's not won one yet this year, but over the last couple of days he's left nobody in any doubt that he'll win one before too long and he does have a habit of beginning to do so on the fifth day in stage races. Frank Schleck will do well, we think - in fact, we wouldn't be too surprised if he's moved up to second place overall by the end of the day. The Schlecks seem to have learned how to ride fast on the flat over the winter which when combined with their phenomenal ability in the hills makes them even more of a force to be reckoned with than they were last year, so Andy might do alright for himself too - but he'll be more interested in saving himself for the proper climbs, the first of which comes on Saturday, when even he will need to work hard to keep up with Contador. We also think that today might be the day we see Bradley Wiggins on the podium. We know he can climb, we know he can sprint and we know he can keep going for as long as it takes, all things necessary today, and he's let it be known that he's "feeling strong" this morning. British fingers should be kept crossed.

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