One week down, two to go. And, after the excitement of Stage 7, I wonder how the riders will manage two days in the rarified air of the Haute Pyrénées. Every year I look forward to the mountain stages of the Alps but there’s just something a little bit extra about the mountains on the border with Spain.
The terrain seems wilder, the roads seem worse, and the conditions seem to bring out the champion in at least one GC contender. Saturday and Sunday will be super-challenging for the peloton but they should reveal who’s ultimately worthy of wearing yellow in Paris.
Stage 8 is relatively short but that will bring little comfort to the riders: along the way they’ll climb more than 15,000 feet thanks to three categorized climbs. The day will start out easily, with a sprint at just 42 kilometers into the race.
Then the fun starts. Category 1 Col de Menté looms in the distance, with the HC (hors catégorie or most difficult) Port de Balès up next, followed by another category 1, the Col de Peyresourde. I’m tired just thinking about it!
The Spanish have a term for stages like this one: rompe-piernas, or leg-breaking. My term would be more like buena suerte (good luck!)
Saturday and Sunday are go-time for everyone aspiring to a podium place in Paris. You can’t hide in the mountains; if there’s a flaw in your fitness or, if your team isn’t perfectly prepared, you’re going down. Tactics are critical, too. You can’t be out-maneuvered by a rival team, losing precious seconds when someone makes a move.
Speaking of Tactics: Let’s Talk about Stage 7
A couple of days ago I complained about the ennui of Stage 5. Yawn, I believe I said.
Well, the cycling gods made up for that lackluster day on Friday’s stage. Deceptively easy on paper, this turned into an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stage. What didn’t happen on the route from Millau to Lavaur?
If you’re new to the sport of cycling, you might not realize how important strategy is to success in the Tour. Stage 7 was the perfect primer on how teams plot to take out their competitors. Lots of time studying the course maps and observing the other riders translates into well-timed theatrics on the road. And, oh, is it fun to watch!
Early in the day, Peter Sagan and the Bora-Hansgrohe team sped to the front of the peloton and put the pedal to the metal, our first indication that this would be a thrilling race. Sagan has won the sprinters’ green jersey seven times (i.e., every time he has completed the race) but has no stage wins yet this year. In fact, the green jersey has been on the shoulders of Sam Bennett for the past few days.
Enough is enough, Sagan and his compatriots said. And they blasted to the first sprint points, giving Peter enough to take back the jersey from Bennett. And most of the other sprinters were caught off-guard, too. As a big Sagan fan, I loved watching this drama unfold.
Things then calmed down for a bit, perhaps allowing a few of the GC contenders to get a little too comfortable toward the back of the main group. That’s when Team Ineos Grenadiers realized it was a great opportunity to propel Egan Bernal to the front of the peloton, then put the hammer down on the rest of the field. In the crosswinds. Ouch.
The move caught Tadej Pogacar (then in second place overall), Mikel Landa, Bauke Mollema, and a host of others, napping. A combo of crosswinds and a blistering pace created gaps in the field, leaving some high-profile riders in the dust. It was a brilliant move that severely hampered the chances of several top GC guys. Could be the defining stage of the Tour.
You snooze, you lose.
And then there was the sprint finish, noteworthy for the dearth of top sprinters left to contest the victory. The earlier moves by Bora-Hansgrohe and then Ineos Grenadiers left the big sprinters clinging to the back of the peloton, begging for mercy. Only the lucky few who could hack the pace and were in the right place at the right time were ready for the last few kilometers. As expected, there was lots of bumping, crossing of lanes, and a furious pace, with Wout Van Aert cruising to his second stage win of this Tour. And he made it look easy!
Tour de France by the Glass Sip-Along Suggestion
Since it’s September and fall looms closer (not here in Miami, but elsewhere I suppose) I’m veering away from a traditional wine pairing for this stage. We’re pedaling through far southwestern France, right past Armagnac country. So howsabout we warm our bones with something strong enough to see us through whatever drama awaits?
And, while we’re at it, let’s have a tasty snack.
Pork is celebrated in southwestern France, especially the highly prized Porc Noir de Bigorre, a species of black pig native to the region. According to local tradition, they spend their lives grazing freely in the fields and meadows, where they feast upon the acorns and chestnuts that are also specialties of this area. In fact, they are raised in a manner quite similar to the famous pigs of Jamón de Serrano, who also subsist on a diet of acorns. Their meat is dried and aged for at least 18 months. Like Jamón de Serrano, Porc Noir ham is lightly streaked with succulent and highly flavorful fat that reflects the unique diet of the pigs. It makes a delectable addition to a charcuterie plate, paired with a mild cheese, or strewn over top of a green salad. For additional recipe ideas, visit LeNoirdeBigorre.com.
Enjoy the atmospheric ascents and death-defying descents of Stage 8. I’ll be back tomorrow with ideas for Stage 9.