Monday 4 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 3 Preview

There are some people out there who only watch the mountain stages in the Tour de France because, they say, the flat sections are boring and nothing ever happens there. That this is patently not true has already been made very obvious by this year's first stages: Stage 1 was non-stop action as bikes crashed all over the place and yesterday's team time trial saw several teams give everything they had to give in the quest to be the fastest, with Garmin, BMC, Sky and LeopardTrek providing both rivals and spectators with a textbook example of how choreographed tactics should be best combined with sheer power.

Hinault, the Breton hero

Today brings another flat section, but anyone who decides not to watch is likely to be missing another superb stage, because it's today that the race enters Brittany. To say that the Bretons love cycling is a serious understatement and it was this region, and the proudly independent nature of its Celtic inhabitants who share more common history with the Welsh and the Irish than they do with the French (as a Welshman, I've been called "cousin" in Brittany), that gave rise to some of the most heroic cyclists of all time. Among them is one of the true colossi, Bernard Hinault, who with Belgian Eddy Merckx can claim to be the greatest to ever live. Naturally, the Tourists are going to want to put on a good show as they travel through such a hallowed land and the passion of the crowds will spur them on.

Starting in Olonne-sur-Mer, an attractive coastal resort that attracts visitors who come from all around France and Europe for the sandy beaches and wide range of leisure activities and historical interests, the first 54km travels inland and reaches no altitude greater than 25m above sea level which is the sort of terrain that encourages early breakaways; just as we saw in Stage 1. Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne is the highest point of the day, at a mere 67m it won't provide any challenges and will produce only a minor dent - if any - in the advantage of any breakaway groups that do form. Shortly afterwards, the parcours reaches the attractive Rocheservière which, positioned as it is in an area subject at various times to invasions by the Bretons and the Vikings, had great strategic importance during its earlier history; a fact made evident by no less than sixteen castles or fortified manor houses found a short distance from the town. There are those who watch the Tour for the helicopter shots of chateaux rather than cycling and for them this is going to be an early highlight to the 2011 Tour.

Crossing into Loire-Atlantique, riders will soon come upon the feeding station located at Saint-Mars-du-Coutais and then heads on for 12km to the sprint section, 3km of almost straight and flat road which will generate high speed and battles for points. It's then a few more kilometres to Chauvé where the camera operators in the helicopters will probably take a short detour away from the cycling to show footage of the Menhir Crotrie the Chevanou, a collection of standing stones dating to Neolithic times.

Soon, the Tour leaves Vendee via the Saint Nazaire bridge, the site of today's only categorised climb (Cat. 4), with a total length just short of 3.5km across the Loire estuary. The main central span, 404m wide, will offer spectacular shots as the peloton flashes across and there's every possibility that those locals fortunate enough to own boats will take the chance to show them off, perhaps leading to a spectacular unofficial regatta on the water far below the cyclists. Once off the bridge, the Tour is in Brittany and it'll be interesting to see if the locals accept Geraint Thomas as a cousin - there may be a few Welsh flags along the roadsides to welcome him. The first 21km on Breton soil are not technical and as flat as the buttery biscuits traditional in this region , encouraging those who want to pay homage to Hinault to achieve impressive speed.

There are more menhirs around Pontchateau and a few dolmens (granite chambers, believed to have been tombs) erected by the ancient Bretons thrown in for good measure too which emphasise links to the pre-Celtic civilisations across the sea to the north. The chateau after which it is named was destroyed in 1500, but picturesque ruins remain. It's then more of the same - straight and untechnical roads - all the way to the finish at Redon. Redon was a small community based around a monastery until the 1960s when it suddenly began to grow, rapidly becoming home to 6000 people. Growth slowed in the coming years and now stands at around 9500 people, a figure that is just low enough for the town to have retained its nature and attractive streets along the junction of the rivers Oust and Vilaine. The Breton language can be heard in Redon and some of the local schools now teach it, which has seen almost 15% of schoolchildren able to converse fluently in both Breton and French which will hopefully guarantee the language does not die out as has its closest relative Cornish.

Winners today? Sprinters, obviously. One obvious choice has to be Mark Cavendish, who is himself from a Celtic nation and who needs to start showing some of the excellent form he had last year. One or two of the previous generation of sprinters have said that they decided to retire when Cav came along, because he was just too fast and they knew their time was over. However, so far this year he's been beginning to look as though his time might be nearly over too - let's hope that he can show us today why he's nicknamed the Missile. Bradley Wiggins put in the most effort of anyone on Team Sky yesterday, but since he appears to be made of nothing but wiry sinew and hard muscle nowadays he may have recovered sufficiently to do the business today. Sky definitely wanted a stage win yesterday and must be feeling gutted to have been beaten by BMC and Garmin, so even if Brad isn't up to it they might send another rider after glory. Geraint Thomas could be a contender, but so could Ben Swift who is making his Tour debut after a stunning start to the year. He'd certainly not want to miss out on a chance to say, "Hi! I'm Swifty and you lot had better look out for me over the next few years!" to the more experienced riders on other teams.

Weatherwise, it's getting hot - temperatures are already hovering around 25 degrees celsius. The wind isn't exepected to get too lairy, but this close to the close crosswinds are always going to be an issue and may cause problems on the Saint Nazaire bridge.

DEVIL WATCH: Around Le Poteau-Vert, near the end. He tends to prefer climbs but the bridge is not natural devil country, not least of all because due to being the only route across the Loire for several kilometres, he wouldn't have got a chance to paint the tridents on the road.

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