Today's étape, the 12th of the 2010 Tour de France, could be thought of as a bridge stage, as it sees the race leave the Alps clearly behind, along with eastern France, while it also begins the inevitable march toward the Pyrenées.
While the Alps may have been left behind, there's no lack of climbing today. The stage includes five categorized climbs, culminating in a finish atop the Category 2 Côte de la Croix-Neuve, now known as the Montée Laurent Jalabert in honor of the multi-faceted French champion who won there after a long solo escapade on Bastille Day, 1995. I can still remember watching — a beautiful victory from one of my favorite all-time riders. Jalabert went on to finish 4th overall that year, his highest GC finish ever and a tremendous result for a rider who started his career as a field sprinter.
Image courtesy of Graham Watson.
The route of today's stage also acts as a bridge from the cool climate wine growing regions visited during the first half of Le Tour to the warmer, drier climes of the more southern and southwestern portions of France. Beginning in Bourg-de-Péage, about 18k ENE of yesterday's finish in Bourg-lès-Valance, the riders head roughly due west, crossing the Rhône near the aptly named Tournon-sur-Rhône. Here, we're in Syrah country, at the foot of the Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage immediately to the north and Cornas, along with the white and sparkling wine region of St. Peray, just a tad further to the south.
Syrah isn't happy much further north than this; Côte-Rôtie is about as far north as it goes in France. Go just a touch further south, though, and the scorching heat and dry summers can be a bit much for it, pushing its ripeness levels past the point of elegance and making it more appropriate as a blending partner rather than a soloist. For my two cents (or more often $20-50 plus), there's no place on earth where Syrah finds a finer, more expressive, sometimes even elegant voice than in the Northern Rhône.
The race won't dawdle for long in the Northern Rhône, though, as once across the river the peloton will quickly head WSW toward the finish, a total of 210k later, in Mende. Much of this time will be spent traversing the ups and downs, twists and turns of the Monts du Vivarais, home on the southeastern side of the range to one of the more obscure wine regions of the Southern Rhône, the Côtes du Vivarais. It's cool enough in the high altitude vineyards of the Vivarais that Syrah is still most important here, at least at the Mas de Bagnols, but Grenache often joins it, bringing a warmer flavor profile to play.
If time permits, I'll report back on this evening's stage, sup and sip.
Up next: to the Tarn we go.