I wonder what the time limit was for "today's" Stage 17. It's a moot point now, for no matter how generous the officials may have been to the flatlanders of the Tour peloton, I'm finishing way outside the limit — and breaking my own promise of posting on a same day, every day basis throughout Le Tour. What can I say? Yesterday was just too busy. An early day at the office. Co-leading a wine and chocolate pairing seminar at Tria Fermentation School. Dinner in town after class. And I still had to watch the Tour! No time left to post, my friends. So here it is, my Stage 17 report, a day late. Relegate me if you must but please don't send me packing. There are only three more stages to go!
Yesterday's leg began in Pau, again in the heart of Jurançon country, more or less running in a reverse direction to that taken in Stage 16, to an eventual finish atop the Col du Tourmalet, the last classified climb in this year's Tour. In spite of the two tough Category 1 climbs — the Col de Marie-Blanque and Col du Soulor — encountered near the midpoint of the day's course, the real fireworks waited for the final ascent up the big mountain. All the way up the big mountain. The Tour has visited the Tourmalet on 73 occasions over the last 100 years (remember, this year marks the centennial of the Tour's first trip to the Pyrénées); however, this was only the second time in the history of the race that a stage finished at the summit, the other being in 1974.
Photo courtesy of and © AFP Photo
While much of Stage 17 was fought at elevations too extreme for wine growing, the course very much ran through a rugged area of France with very strong ties to the culture of food and wine: Basque country. If there's anything the citizens of the Basque country are crazier about than their local drinks and foodstuffs, it's cycling — and rugby, but that's a topic I'll leave to others. If you had a chance to watch yesterday's stage coverage, you'll have seen throngs of rabid cycling fans lining the slopes of the Cols, and a preponderance of orange shirts and red, white and green flags: the Ikurriña, the official flag of Spanish Basque country and the widely adopted symbol of Euskal Herria, the entirety of Basque country. In this part of the Pyrénées, the cultural border blurs. Even though the Tour commentators pointed out that the majority of fans lining the slopes of the Tourmalet had traveled across the border from spain, it's also quite likely that many of those orange shirted, flag waving schmengies (to borrow a Bob Roll-ism) live on the French side of the border. Either way, it's clear from the number of Ikurriñas on display that they'd rather think of themselves as Basque citizens, official borders be damned.
If there was a benefit to not finding the time for my same-day coverage yesterday, it was the opportunity to revisit a restaurant in Philly that I hadn't been to in quite some time, José Garces' second spot in town, the Basque-inspired Tinto. The increasingly all-Spanish wine list at Tinto also gave me the chance to explore something I drink all too rarely — a wine from the southern side of the Basque country (exactly the opposite of "tomorrow's" guest blogger, as you'll soon see).
The cold, rainy, foggy conditions faced by riders and fans alike in yesterday's Pyrénéean escapade may not have been evocative of ideal rosado weather. Nonetheless, I'd still be hard pressed to think of anything I'd rather drink with a sandwich of Jamón Ibérico while waiting to cheer the racers up the mountains than the 2009 Getariako Txakolina "Rubentis" from Ameztoi, which the sommelier at Tinto poured for us by the glass last night. Delicately fruity, decidedly saline and mineral, low-alcohol and ultra-refreshing given its light effervescence. Killer stuff, and it made me want to return to San Sebastian — for more Txakoli, a little Basque cider, and some real-deal pintxos — in a big way.
Up next: another side of Basque country.