The Domaine du Vareilles sits just beside a quiet road through a quiet town north of Limoges. You don’t even need to walk in to know those walls have been standing for a long time. The owner, from Lithuania, explained that some of the main features inside were the original watering troughs for the cattle and horses. Meals are served in the old orangerie. They’re a resilient people, the Lithuanians, coming out from Soviet rule and some distinctly hard times to find a measure of prosperity. The original owners built it to last, and most of it, save a renovation or two, has.
Outside, a line of plum trees, already laden with ripe fruits, were alive with bees first thing on a cloudy morning. To a chorus of laughter from the Rabobank VIPs across the road, we set off to look for more beauty in the very heart of France.
We made due east to pick up the race route, via a stop in the historic town of Aubusson, which was a real contrast. Stunning old buildings going to wrack and ruin, some down-at-heel homes whose inhabitants appeared to have very little to their names. And yet they carry on.
Dotted around the old town centre, a number of high-end, niche shops have sprung up selling jewellery and art and other businesses have been given a lick of paint; so, there’s a bit of money in Aubusson, but it’s not very well distributed.
By the way, don’t come here if you fancy opening a hair salon or barbers – there’s one on every street. And here’s a metaphor for rural France, rural everywhere and the growth of homogenised globalisation. Don’t bother coming if you feel like running an independent gas station – they’re going out of business at an alarming rate. One we passed this morning had been reconstituted as a memorial stone store-room. Sobering?
There was definitely life in Aubusson, though. A thriving market was being played out at full volume, entire trailer loads of cheese being sold (one young lady took three kilos of the stuff from one stand) and chickens turning on spits with potatoes being roasted in the dripping fat below … if I’d started on those, we’d never have reached Super Besse.
Artisanal breads were tucked half-hidden down a side street, even although the guy selling them didn’t want his photo taken. He was extremely firm about that, so maybe he was moonlighting from a rival bakery?
Aubusson is famous for its tapestries, even although we didn’t have the time to go and see the exposition a little uphill from the market. Posters for various exhibitions and demonstrations of the art were tacked to crumbling doors, or bound to lamp-posts.
Race day: Time to go. We’ve a race to see. It’s a twisty back road out of Aubusson and we’re aiming for Condat-en-Combraille with eighty kilometres to race. A stunning chateau peeps out of the trees for long enough that we get a proper chance to stop for a look.
The main road for Clermont-Ferrand is blocked off so we detour until a nice policeman asks us to wind down our window, speaks to us for about forty-five seconds about the race, then waves us through towards the finish.
The clouds are whipping by and every time the road rises, you can feel the temperature drop. In the distance, the jagged outlines of the Auvergne region take on the sky. On the plateaus are crops and good grazing for cattle, something you don’t get much of at altitude in Scotland.
The kids have been busy as we head through Rozet and Briffon. A family larks about as they wait for the caravan which we’ve managed to avoid today. A chubby boy has five or six goes at running up a steep embankment before succeeding. His little sister proudly hands him a bottle of a well-known brand of soft drink, the sort that made the world sing in harmony once upon a time, as if that was the prize he needed most.
It’s a nerve-jangling drive up the last two climbs as we vie for road space with pedestrians, Tour vehicles, recreational cyclists and that other group – the eccentric. You just know when someone is going to try something daft. My photographer wisely shuts her window before one headcase tried to smack his umbrella through it.
We drop the car at the press centre and split up. I make for about 450 meters to go while Valerie waits at the finish line. The wind makes the flags clack horizontal and some punters have trouble keeping their banners upright. France, Italy, Germany, Norway, Luxemburg, USA, Canada, Australia, UK, Spain – the united nations of cycling are on the climb to Super Besse Sancy.
The riders are on good time and Daniel Mangeas counts down the kilometres rapidly. A mob of fans cluster around the France 2 TV truck to watch a couple of monitors, and a much bigger crowd stands at the feet of a giant screen just off the arrivйe. Vino has just attacked the yellow jersey group and is flying.
Rui Costa is on us in no time, grimacing but riding steadily towards a debut stage win in the Tour de France. Vino is fighting, but as I forget myself in the excitement a black-yellow-red blur flashes past under my nose. It’s Philippe Gilbert and I immediately look to see if Costa is out of sight round the bend with just over 300 to go. He is, and just hangs on before dropping the bike to the road as the celebrations begin.
Gilbert gets close, and it’s enough for the green jersey again, but he’s gone very deep today. He, like everyone else who finished today, looked wrecked.
The main leaders hurtle up the last few meters and Hushovd is doing another great ride, staying with them all the way. It’s a fantastic display of grinta from the world champion, helping to dispel that old curse of the rainbow jersey myth.
The (current) defending champion finishes with a thousand yard stare pasted across his face. There are shakes of heads, and pleading looks for warm clothes. QuickStep’s first finishers are already heading down long before the autobus comes up.
Tailed off riders drop from the leading groups and huddle together to the line. I see a five-strong group with a couple of FDJ riders. They’re all staring at the tarmac in front of them, not one lifting his head the whole way.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck has had another decent day and is absolutely swamped when he gets off the bus. A TV camera crew even cheekily lowers their sound boom in over his head as he whispers to his lady. They take it in good humor, but it would have been easier to have snapped about it.
The authorities do their best to hold back the tide so that the photographers get their shots first but it’s soon mayhem up there. Team cars and riders are trying to get down; photo motos, team cars and finishers are still trying to get up. Everyone wants to move, just not necessarily in the same direction.
Movistar have a post-stage win love-in in the narrow gap between their team bus and team car, causing an arterial blockage. A held-up Radioshack guy shouts: “Right, that’s enough time …! Move!”
Close yesterday, surviving today, Andre Greipel still looks hard as nails as he manoeuvres his way through the scrum. The fans are in on the act now as the cars turn to head for the hotel. We should say that Euskaltel were not responsible for the dent in the SaxoBank car – they just mastered the art of getting so close that their car hood fitted the gap.
Overlooking the finish line as the crowds started to thin, as the rain came down heavier, stood an old stone barn, that I’m sure has stood through much more than the previous finishes at Super Besse. It was built with that earthy sort of resilience that I hope will get towns like Aubusson through the current economic bad times.