The Tour is finally here (maybe)!
As I write this, the 107th running of the Tour de France is underway, just having finished the 3rd of 21 daily “stages”. Assuming the riders really will make it to the end in the midst of the COVID pandemic, this year the fabled bicycle race has a special interest to those of us who love the ancient volcanic mountains and gorgeous landscapes of central France. Stage 14 of the Tour will begin in my old hometown, Clermont-Ferrand, where riders will set out on the 197 km (118 mile) trip to Lyon. But the day before (Friday, September 11th ), they will first have to tackle one of the Tour’s famous mountain passages, starting in the beautiful spa town of Châtel-Guyon and climbing a total of 4,400 meters on a 191 km ride through a chain of volcanoes on the way to the Puy Mary in the Cantal.
As with all other major sporting events in this year of the COVID crisis, there are still plenty of questions about how well the great bicycle race will work and whether it is possible to go all the way to the end of all 21 stages. Postponed from its traditional start date in July, it’s already clear that crowds for the spectacle are thinner in September. (For sure there won’t be any vacationing British, American, or Australian tourists in the crowd!) Spectators must be masked, and at many of the points where the peloton of cyclists will pass there will be strict crowd restrictions (access limited to people coming on foot or by bicycle or in a bus transport organized for the occasion). Two tons of hand sanitizer will be deployed along the route, and portable hand-washing stations will be available everywhere.
Only 5,000 people were allowed at the beginning of the Tour last Saturday (in Nice, on the Riviera) and only that many will be allowed at the end in Paris, although that number is subject to change if the COVID-19 situation grows worse during September. The racers themselves (and their support staffs) will be isolated in “bubble” groupings, with frequent testing and limited interactions between the different bubbles. There won’t be the usual opportunities to meet the racers for selfies or autographs – or any of the other usual interactions between riders and spectators. Although they race with faces uncovered, the riders who make it to the podium at the end of each day will be wearing masks. And – in a concession both to the demands to end a long-standing sexist practice and in the interests of health and safety – there will no longer be decorative young women on the podium to kiss each day’s winners and join in the spray of champagne!
“The Hardest Stage of the 2020 Tour de France”
Again, assuming the Tour will be able to continue to the end (there are already some teams who have sent home mechanics and staff members infected with COVID-19), this will be a rare opportunity to see the great race in the deep heart of central France. On Friday, September 11th, riders will start the day in the elegant little resort town of Châtel-Guyon, just northwest of Clermont-Ferrand.
Nothing remains of the great castle here; having stood watch over this valley for almost 600 years, it was finally torn down in 1595 C.E. Instead, there’s a barren hill (now called “Calvary”) rising above the town and dominated by an elaborate stone cross with a gilded image of Jesus placed here by missionaries in 1884. The town itself is a genteel resort, with several spas drawing from the bubbling volcanic sources below and the grand hotels and restaurants you'd expect to find in a place like this.
From the top of the town you can see the whole incredible sweep of the landscape of the Auvergne -- across the great plain of Limagne (one of the richest “breadbaskets” of France) to the east, and back to the UNESCO World Heritage “Park of Volcanoes” stretching away to the southwest.
And those magnificent volcanoes are the setting for what The Guardian’s William Fotheringham calls “[a]rguably the hardest stage, with seven climbs ending with the highest pass of the Massif Central.” That’s saying a lot, since the 2020 Tour will also have climbs in the Alps, the Pyrénées, and the grand peaks of the Vosges and the Jura! According to race organizers, this day will include more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) of climbing, so riders may not get to appreciate the incredible sights that make this part of central France so “sauvage” and captivating.
Along the racecourse for Stage 13
This stage provides a neat synthesis of almost everything I love about “the deep heart of France” – its history, its culture, and its rugged natural beauty. The peloton will climb up from Châtel-Guyon into the Chaine des Puys – the only UNESCO World Heritage “natural” site in mainland France. On the way, they may be able to see some of the fine small vineyards in these mountains, and the single tower of the castle at Chateaugay.
They’ll sweep past Sayat, the little village where we had our first home in France, and through the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand – watch especially for another beautiful spa town. Royat definitely retains the atmosphere of Belle Epoque France, even though its roots are in the epochs of Gallic tribes and later in the Roman occupation of France.
The most striking attraction along this route will be the Puy de Dome, the great conic volcano that dominates the skyline behind Clermont-Ferrand. At 1,078 meters (3,500 feet) this is not the highest point of the climb – but it is in some ways the most spectacular sight, and with its Roman temple to Mercury and the little “cremaliere” train that takes visiters to the top, its one of the most-visited places in this part of the country.
From here, the racers get no rest as they pass into my favorite sub-region of the Auvergne, the Cantal. This is one of the least populated, but most beautiful parts of France. Climbing first over the rugged Monts Dore, cyclists will hit 1,277 meters (about 4,100 feet) at the Col de Guery before dropping back down to lava flows that look like a pipe organ at Bort-les-Orgues and passing the extraordinarily situated (but historically minor) Chateau de Val. (Well, it is the only castle I know of that was once owned by the electric company – so that’s an interesting story!)
The last part of this grinding, difficult ride will take Tour riders to the top of the Puy Mary, the “grand dame” of the Cantal and one of France’s “Grand National Sites”. This volcanic cone hasn’t erupted for millions of years, but it still looks as jagged and wild as its history implies. And it feels like you can see half of France from the top of the peak, rising to 1,787 meters (5,862 feet). All the “climbing specialists” in the peloton are men with thick calves, thighs like tree trunks, and lungs of unimaginable capacity; the ones who arrive in first place at the top of the Puy Mary are bound to be among the most able competitors in all the other climbing stages of the Tour.
The test of endurance continues….
The reward for all this work? A quick night’s rest in Clermont-Ferrand before hitting the road again on Saturday for a 197 km (118 mile) ride to Lyon. I’ve written so extensively about our old hometown (Clermont) that I won’t repeat myself here – just be aware that the city is bursting with pride to host part of the Tour on 2 consecutive days. (Even the landscaping in the green island of Jardin le Coq in the center of town has been updated in anticipation of the race!)
It’s important to know, too, that the route to Lyon is not what you would call an “easy” trip. The first time I undertook the trip in my four-cylinder Renault Clio I couldn’t get it to go more than 45 miles an hour at full speed over those mountains!
We were supposed to be in the Auvergne this September and October until the pandemic shut down all such plans. It’s both painful and a great treat to trace the route for these stages of the Tour de France on the map and to imagine being one of the lucky few spectators by the roadside when the pack of racers pass in a flurry of color and noise. For now, though, that pleasure will have to remain virtual, although you can bet I’ll be following every step of the coverage as it streams on the internet!
Have you ever been a spectator to the passage of the Tour de France? What was it like? What are your best memories of the day? Please share your experience in the comments section below! And I’d be grateful if you would take a second to share this post with someone else who loves the people, history, places, and culture of “the deep heart of France”!
Unless otherwise noted, all photos in this post are copyright © 2020 by Richard L. Alexander