No region of France supports The Tour with greater fervor than Brittany, not only with fans flocking to the roadsides, but with fans expressing their devotion with all manner of artful creations celebrating The Tour. With The Tour visiting the northwest corner of the country only every third or fourth year, when it does visit the fans don’t hold back.
The town of Carhaix-Plouguer displayed four bonafide sculptures, that might have been borrowed from the Louvre, of the four great cyclists of Brittany, Tour winners all—Hinault, Bobet, Robic and Petit-Breton—in all of their glory, each at full throttle, as if on the attack leaving everyone behind. I had to wait more than fifteen minutes to get a photo as there was a non-stop procession of people flocking to give them a close look and not wanting to leave. I didn’t catch anyone genuflecting, but if I had waited much longer I’m sure I would have seen that and more.
Further down the day’s stage was an equally mesmerizing sculpture featuring the flag of Brittany, which takes precedence over the French flag here.
A bakery had several magnificently decorated bikes, one fully honoring France with red, white and blue, the tricolor, in prominence, even on the various loaves of bread in the display.
On and on it went all the way to the stage finish in Mur de Bretagne up its renowned Mur (wall) a couple miles outside of the town. I arrived at noon and it was already thronged with devotees throbbing with anticipation. I couldn’t take advantage of its library as a giant stage had been set up in front of it for an evening of music after the conclusion of the stage. I very much would have liked to have melted into the crowd, as I could have absorbed enough energy to get me through the rest of The Tour, but I had a train to catch the next morning in Vannes, fifty miles away, so couldn’t linger.
My first ten miles heading south out of town not a single car came up from behind me, as all traffic, and there was plenty of it, was headed to the Mur. I hoped the city twenty-five miles away where I hoped to find a bar to watch the Stage wasn’t evacuated. It was very quiet, but I did find a bar that I had all to myself. I could sit back and enjoy that always deeply satisfying experience of reliving the miles and miles of divine French countryside I had just ridden.
In the corner of the TV screen a number counted down the number of kilometers to the finish. I was especially alert when it hit the number where I had camped the night before and could capture a glimpse of my private little pasture. A while later the breakaway passed the tourist office where I had stopped at 8:45 to take advantage of its WIFI to download the previous day’s Tour podcasts, which now includes a Breakfast with Boswell, a conversation between the American Katusha rider Ian Boswell and a friend who is following The Tour. A few miles later the peloton passed a lake where one of the Tour sponsor, which sells fishing equipment, had set up a bunch of tents and was providing fishing rods for fans. They were all wearing the purple t-shirt the sponsor was giving away. I stopped to get one, but they were all out.
Next came a steep climb through a forest that I was happy to see slowed the riders a bit, though not as much as me. There were no attacks or accelerations. All was proceeding as all the other stages had to this point with the small breakaway of riders of no consequence or threat to stay away, up the road, while the true contenders for the stage bided their time until the end.
No one elected to launch an attack on the first climb up the Mur, waiting for the final assault after a six-mile loop, an innovation the The Tour organizers added this year hoping it might spark some action, but all it allowed was the riders to make a full reconnaissance of the savagely steep mile-long climb, that most of them knew anyway from previous races.
The second time up the climb, Richie Porte made an attempt to surge away, as he can easily do in his home Tour Down Under, but not against this competition. Dan Martin zoomed past him, opened a gap, and then strained to keep it, glancing back occasionally with only Pierre Latour showing any chance of catching him. The steepness of the climb had everyone struggling. Martin held off Latour to win by a second. Valverde, showing his high finishes in all the sprint stages, even though he’s not a sprinter, is an indication he’s a genuine threat for the podium, finished third, two seconds further back leading in a pack of fourteen all getting the same time, though Valverde earns a time bonus, as do the other two top finishers.
In that bunch of fourteen were the heavy-hitters Porte, Yates, Quintana, Thomas, Nibali, and Landau. Froome came in five seconds after that group, not overly worrying, as he’s stronger at the long sustained climbs, but still a slight barometer on his condition compared to his rivals. Van Garderen slipped in two seconds before Froome and Uran three seconds after. The big losers among the contenders were Bardet, 31 seconds back, and Dumoulin, 53, both victims of flat tires before the final climb.
Van Avermaet held on to the Yellow Jersey, which he should be able to keep through the next two benign sprint stages and possibly through Sunday’s cobble stage. The cobbles will most definitely shake up the standings, but then the Alps even more so on the three stages to follow, Tuesday through Thursday. I’ll miss the next three stages as I spend all day taking a succession of three trains across the country arriving in Lyon on the eve of Bastille Day. I’ll spend the great national holiday biking to Annecy on the fringe of the Alps, where I’ll watch the cobbles and the World Cup Sunday, a day before the peloton arrives. I could camp at one of the many campgrounds around Lake Annecy and probably have several firework displays to watch.
And the nickname of the day is ZaZa.