Monday, July 27, 2009

Le Tour Est Fin: The Vaucluse, Ventoux and the TGV to Paris

Three weeks. As quickly as it came, it’s gone. Another year of what must be considered one the world’s greatest sporting spectacles: the Tour de France. The final week of this year’s Tour proved to be less decisive than some had postulated it would be, as the final positions on the podium had already pretty well shaped up after the first day or two in the Alps. Yet the final week was still as exciting as always, perhaps even more so than usual given the penultimate stage’s finish atop the giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. The end results may have been predictable but the fireworks were no less thrilling to watch.

In all the times I’ve traveled to France, never once have I put rubber to road on a bicycle. Friends who know how much I like to ride find it hard to believe, but it’s true. Wine, food, culture and good old general tourism have always taken precedence. One of these years, though, I’ll eventually make it over for a cyclo-centric trip. When I do, I have to say that L’Alpe d’Huez will be the mecca atop my list of mountains to be climbed. But the Ventoux won’t be far behind.

I’ve spent enough time in its tremendous shadow to have a clear mental image of what to expect, for the Ventoux dominates the vista in much of the Vaucluse and can be seen from most parts of Provence and the Southern Rhône, its bald, lunar pinnacle looming in startling contrast to the rolling green countryside that surrounds it. When last I visited the Vaucluse – the French department in which Mont Ventoux is situated – we spent several days hiking, driving, eating and exploring throughout the villages and countryside in the mountain’s environs. Our home for the duration of our stay was a lovely little B&B on the outskirts of Menerbes, just down the street from the winery that produced the wine I sipped with dinner while watching the riders claw their way up Ventoux’s slopes.

Côtes du Luberon “Les Artèmes” Rouge, Domaine de la Citadelle (Yves Rousset-Rouard) 2001
$18 on release. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Much as the Luberon hills lie in the shadow of Mont Ventoux, Domaine de la Citadelle sits directly beneath the fortressed, hilltop town of Menerbes. The Domaine’s wines are soundly among the best in the Luberon, while their winery itself makes for an easy, even quirky afternoon tasting destination. Outside there is a “demonstration” vineyard, with specimens planted of just about every vine known to the area and then some, while inside is the Musée du Tire-Bouchon, which features a highly entertaining array of corkscrews in various shapes, forms and designs from throughout the ages.

Though the blend in “Les Artèmes” rouge shifts slightly according to the conditions of each vintage, it is generally a roughly equal part blend of Grenache and Syrah, aged in a mixture of tank and older barrels. At eight years of age, the 2001 Artèmes has shed much of its youthful brightness and taken on a richer, mellowed feel, with slightly Port-like aromas, a hint of browning in the glass and loads of fine sediment in the bottle. There’s still plenty of generous fruit and enticingly spicy scents, but I think I preferred it in its youth, when it displayed a snappier acid balance and slightly crunchier, less overripe flavor and textural profile. A bit overmatched with my staple chicken pot pie (I still haven’t found a better pairing than Puffeney’s Poulsard) but I think this would be right on with braised lamb shanks… about four months and forty degrees from now.

* * *

That’s my final report on Les Vins du Tour de France…. There was no Sunday morning Champagne (as I’d suggested as a possibility in the opening stage of my race coverage) while watching the coverage of the final day’s TGV ride from Avignon to the Parisian suburbs and the ensuing race into Paris – at least not for me – so I leave you with a few simple thoughts on the 2009 Tour.

Contador conquered, as expected. Lance rode amazingly well and, in spite of all the drama generated in the press, he did it in a truly supportive manner – didn’t think he had it in him. The brothers Schleck both impressed; watch out for Andy next year if he can get his time trialing skills dialed up a notch or two. Mark Cavendish is a freak of nature. His performance in taking six stage wins this year was leaps above his level in last year’s race, and he won four stages then. My man of the Tour, though, was Cav’s teammate, George Hincapie. Riding in his fourteenth consecutive Tour, and perhaps his last, he came within reach of the yellow jersey only to be struck with the disappointment of missing it by five seconds. A few days later, he crashed hard, bruising or maybe even breaking his collarbone – I still don’t know which – but refused to be x-rayed for fear that he’d be told to retire from the race. Nope, he forged on, rode through the pain. And consummate team rider that he is, he finished with a flourish in setting up the perfect lead out for Cavendish’s final stage victory on the Champs d’Elysées. Cav, of course, deserves all the credit for the win. And Mark Renshaw is unquestionably one of the best lead-out men in the cycling biz today. But just watch George’s jump from under the flame rouge (the 1K to go flag). It’s a thing of beauty.


TWG said...

any thoughts on the green jersey being taken from Cavendish?

David McDuff said...

That's a tough one, Tom. I think Cav was docked 13 points on the stage when he was relegated for erratic sprinting... and he ended up losing to Thor by 10. If Cav had those 13 points in hand, though, I'm guessing Thor might not have settled so easily for 6th place on the Champs.

As for the relegation itself, I'd have to look at the tape again to give you my definitive opinion. I definitely remember Cav and the Columbia train trying to slow things down in the hopes of getting George into yellow. Definitely a tough call.

Do Bianchi said...

David, I loved these posts and thanks for doing them! One day I'd love to ascend Mt. Ventoux with you! Petrarch wrote a famous account of his ascent as an allegory for spiritual self-awareness... great posts and a great way to follow the tour...

David McDuff said...


I'm glad you dug my digressive Tour posts. I'll definitely hold you to the ride up Mont Ventoux. Spiritual or not, I can guarantee it will be a very self-aware experience!

In the event that I get my act together for daily coverage of next year's Tour, I'm putting you on my list to handle one of the stages.

Jim Budd said...

David: 'Mark Cavendish is a freak of nature. His performance in taking six stage wins this year was leaps above his level in last year’s race, and he won four stages then.'

I think describing Mark as a 'freak of nature' is a little harsh. Despite his feats last year it was reasonable to expect Mark to be even better this year – he is only 24. I agree he does have a remarkable turn of speed but he rides very aerodynamically. He also has, as Mark is the first to acknowledge, a great lead out team in Columbia.

David McDuff said...

I hardly meant for the description to be harsh, just for it to capture the amazing level of Cavendish's performance. I think you're absolutely right that it was reasonable to expect him to improve this year, given his age and experience. And he clearly had the best lead out squad in the race.

Jim Budd said...

David – I see what you mean! It is frightening to think how many stage victories he may get during his career if he remains at this level and escapes injury.


Wine Clubs said...

Most American's haven't seen a true bike race in person, I saw one in Prague and have enjoyed watching the sport since. Thanks for the reminder about how far it has come.

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