The return of the Tour, after a two-month COVID-inspired delay, brought joy to my heart. As a sports junkie in general, the dearth of live sports this summer has been a real drag; as a cycling super-fan, realizing I’d be able to watch three weeks of daily contests on the scenic byways of France buoyed my spirits.
I could hardly wait for Le Grand Départ!
The only thing standing between me and several hours of binge-watching my favorite sport was an all-day blind tasting seminar via Zoom. Part of my prep for the beastly D3 exam – the last unit in my WSET diploma adventure – this was an extremely helpful and humbling exercise taught by the awesome Jay Youmans, MW. Six of us blasted through 18 wines, analyzing each one and taking turns sharing our notes. Jay encouraged us and kept us on track.
It was the best tasting tutorial I’ve attended. If you’re studying for D3 and have a chance to taste with Jay or attend a class he’s teaching, I highly recommend both. A long day, but well worth the exercise.
After class, with palate fatigue and craving some couch time, I sat down to watch Stage 1 of the Tour.
It Took a Viking to Slay This Stage
As the riders clustered at the starting line (appropriately masked, of course) the Côte d’Azur lived up to its nickname with cerulean skies and sapphire seas. Pretty as a picture, Nice looked like a movie set and the peloton was ready to play its part. The course would take them from the coast up into the narrow roads of the Maritime Alps, then back down to sea level. A challenging day for the riders and a picturesque one for the spectators.
But, as the race edged higher into the hills, clouds gathered on the horizon. (Cue the foreboding movie music.) With every kilometer the cyclists climbed, the skies grew darker, casting ominous shadows upon them. And then came the rain . . .
After weeks of dry weather, the roads became slicker than a Slip-n-Slide, turning a difficult descent from the mountains into a death-defying feat. Wheels slipped, riders overshot their corners; the commentators had trouble keeping up with the crashes. It was horrible to watch.
Eventually, Team Jumbo-Visma worked with the other leading teams to neutralize the descent, meaning that the group would navigate the dangerous roads carefully – together – until it was safe to go back to full-out racing. Because this was a sprint stage, doing so would not alter the outcome of the race – once back on the flats, the big men could storm to the finish line as fast as ever.
In my opinion, the race organizers should have neutralized the descent in an attempt to keep the peloton safe. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been as many crashes and injuries. Oh well.
By the time everyone was back at sea level and the sprinters were pedaling like mad men, my heart was in my throat. It was agonizing to watch the treacherous descent, desperately hoping no one would be injured or, worse, withdraw from the race.
But, oh boy, did that final dash to the finish line make up for the agony!
Most of the sprinting favorites were in the mix, tucked behind their lead-out men, waiting for the perfect moment to spring out of the pack. Peter Sagan, Sam Bennett, Mads Pederson, and Elia Viviani thundered ahead, looking for the perfect line.
And then . . .
The hulking form clad in a white jersey emerged, gathering speed with every stroke of the pedal. Picking off one contender after another, the burly bike rider kept to the right side, sneaking up on the leaders and snatching the stage victory for himself.
What a great day for Alexander Kristoff of Norway.
No one had figured him to be in the final scrum, let alone win the race. Shame on us! Kristoff has been around a while and has accumulated a few big stage wins. And on a day like today, we should have expected it would take a Viking to conquer the conditions.
In case you were wondering, Kristoff trains all year in Norway. Most cyclists relocate to places like northern Spain, the south of France, or Colorado to hone their skills and build their fitness. Kristoff rides in the ice and snow of Scandinavia. Impressive, no?
Stage 2: Better Weather and a GC Battle
Sunday arrived with sunny skies and the Tour’s first mountain stage. That meant a long day of maneuvering among the teams with aspirations for the overall GC battle.
If you’re new to the Tour, the yellow jersey is won by the rider with the lowest overall time after three weeks of racing. Teams devote much time and energy to protecting and helping advance their leaders on every stage.
Much of Stage 2 played out on the same roads as Stage 1, although the peloton was forced to climb higher and more often before descending to the straightaway finish along the Mediterranean. We watched the teams trade tactics, especially Jumbo-Visma, Ineos, and UAE, whose riders include the favorites to win the yellow jersey.
Compared to Saturday’s race, this was a pleasure to watch: nary a cloud in the sky; no rain to worsen an already perilous descent. (I could actually breathe as I watched!) It was a long day but the best moments came toward the end.
Three riders pushed to the finish, just ahead of the encroaching peloton that threatened to swallow them up. I didn’t think they’d make it, especially when they started jockeying for position, each waiting for one of the others to take the lead.
And the peloton creeps closer.
Here they come, so close you can almost feel their breath on your neck.
Did you hear that roar? Maybe the peloton – but wait, it came from the front line. No, not the peloton, but Julian Alaphilippe, the man with the heart of a lion. The undisputed star of the 2019 Tour launched his attack and put the rocket boosters on blast, just edging out Marc Hirschi, appearing in his first Tour de France.
Alaphilippe pointed to the sky as he crossed the line, in acknowledgment of his deceased father, then climbed off his bike, hugged his manager, releasing the wave of emotions that had powered him to victory – and the yellow jersey.
A great moment that wiped away the bad scenes from Saturday and made me more eager for Monday’s race.
Stage 3: More Mountains and a Sprint Finish
Monday brings us the longest stage of the race (198 km) and a few pesky climbs perfect for those battling for the polka-dot jersey. The finish, however, will be flat and a beacon for the sprinters who won’t have many more chances for a stage victory before the final day in Paris.
Look for signs of wear-and-tear on teams like Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, who had crashes on day one and might be feeling it more today than on Sunday. Keep your eyes on Julian Alaphilippe, just because he’s so fun to watch. And don’t be surprised if there’s a valiant Viking crossing the line in first place.
Keep Pouring the Rosé!
The race is still squarely within rosé territory, and there are many to choose from. I’ve picked this deep, intense version from Château Simone in the small region (43 hectares) of Palette, east of Aix-en-Provence. The Rougier family has made wine here for seven generations, using fruit from very old vines (50+ years). This rosé includes local favorites Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, as well as local varieties such as Castet, Manosquin, Carignan, and Muscatel.
If you find a bottle from Château Simone, don’t be afraid to pair it with a grilled steak or even some pork chops. It’s a substantial wine that won’t shy away from meat dishes. And it’s really delicious!
Enjoy Stage 3, and our last glimpse of the Mediterranean. On Tuesday we turn northward toward the major peaks of the Alps – and some serious mountain stages.