France is a diverse country, stretching from Dunkerque, the cold North Sea, endless farm land and defunct heavy industry of the North to Nice in the South – Mediterranean heat, mountains and marshes.
In the West, the rocky Atlantic Coast, the world famous vineyards of Bordeaux and playground of the rich and famous, Biarritz. In the East, the Alpes and borders with five European neighbours. Those borders made it easy for the Romans to claim much of Southern France for their own and the influences are still strong.
Despite Paris’s hi-tech suburb of La Defence and Toulouse’s position as a player on the world aerospace stage, fly over France and you’ll realise that this is still very much an agricultural country.
In common with most off Europe, soccer is the number one sport, but the French people still have a love affair with ‘le velo;’ despite the lack of top line French riders, the nation still loves the phenomenon that is – le Tour de France.
Still the world’s biggest annual sporting event, the 2009 race is the 96th edition; 3,500 kilometres over 21 stages for 180 of the world’s best riders.
As we drive from Beauvais, north of Paris, down to today’s stage finish town of Vittel – not too far from the German border – eleven stages have been contested.
Britain’s Mark Cavendish has won four [but that could be five, by tonight] and French ‘baroudeurs’ (breakaway specialists) have won three; the other four stages have gone to Swiss time trial bull, Fabian Cancellara; another of the ‘muscular’ brigade, Norwegian sprinter, Thor Hushovd; Spanish method actor, Luis Leon Sбnchez, and a freight train called Astana.
The Pyrenees did little to influence the race; apart from Bert Contador stretching his legs and dispatching a little message up Arcalis on Friday, the GC contenders standings changed not one jot.
Classy Italian, Rinaldo Nocentini continues the joy that is AG2R’s 2009 Tour whilst the favourites watch and wait.
Astana hold a very strong hand, with four Grand Tour podium finishers in the top six – Contador, Armstrong, Leipheimer and Kloden.
For the other favourites, things don’t look so rosy.
Christian Vandevelde (Garmin) is ‘best of the rest’ in 8th at 01:24; an heroic TTT kept him in the frame.
Andy Schleck (Saxo) lies 9th at 1:49 with brother Frank 13th at 2:25. This combination gives Bjarne Riis options, but he has to begin to move his pieces around the chess board tomorrow, on the stage to Colmar.
Defending champion, Carlos Sastre (Cervйlo) is 16th at 2:52. The current ‘phoney war’ will suit the humble Spaniard; all of the attention is on Astana, whilst he quietly goes about his business. Two stunning stage victories at the Giro reminded the world that Sastre has got what it takes to attack and win.
Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) is on the wrong side of three minutes off the pace, thanks to a crash and puncture blighted TTT for the Belgian team.
It’s not impossible for Vandevelde, a Schleck, Sastre or Evans to win.
But their problem lies in the strength of both Contador and Armstrong, against the watch.
It’s not enough to claw the time back; a buffer has to be inserted in anticipation of the two Astana men blasting most of the field, a-week-today, around Lake Annecy.
Or will it all come down to a-week-on-Saturday, on the Ventoux?
No doubt that’s what ASO are hoping for.
Whatever the outcome, PEZ will be there.
We’ll be trying hard to match the excellent Pez work done by Gord Cameron on the first week of this year’s race.
And trying hard to bring you here with us.
Vive le Tour!
– Ed & Martin