Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Steep hills and great fans await the Tour in Brittany

A region that spored Tour winners Hinault, Bobet and Robic


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A region that spored Tour winners Hinault, Bobet and Robic

2011 Tour de France, stage 3: Cadel Evans
Cadel Evans is a favorite for the stage 4 win and could take the jersey. Photo: Graham Watson

When the wind was whipping the Tour de France peloton in the last 40km of Monday’s stage I was reminded of racing on a nearby stretch of road back in the 1960s. It was an amateur classic, Nantes-St. Nazaire, and I was riding in the gutter, trying desperately to hang on to the end of an echelon as we headed toward the coast in fierce crosswinds.

The big difference between then and now — besides the importance of the race! — was a cold driving rain. This year’s hot sunshine at the Tour is not typical of Brittany, the region that the Tour is traveling through for three days before heading toward Normandy on Thursday. But rain or shine, racing in Brittany is always a challenge and nearly always spectacular.

On Monday, the field was reluctant to exploit the crosswinds, firstly because the roads were not truly exposed except over the lofty St. Nazaire bridge, secondly because of tired legs from Sunday’s team time trial, and thirdly because the presence in modern France of too-numerous roundabouts and traffic islands that disrupt the racing and create dangerous situations. None of the leaders wants to lose teammates this early in the race, so they regulate the pace when they have teammates off the back.

The Tour riders also have to be wary of spectators more than ever. After a lady in a yellow top precipitated last Saturday’s mass pileup, a fan leaning over the barriers on the final left corner 600 meters from Monday’s finish apparently forced Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen to swerve right. That narrowed the gap through the turn and resulted in Cofidis’ Samuel Dumoulin crashing on the outside of the curve while stage favorite Mark Cavendish had to brake when Vacansoleil’s Romain Feillu cut him off. That cost Cavendish his chance at the stage win though he still managed to surge back and salvage fifth place.

It will be the hills that determine the outcome on Tuesday’s stage 4 when the Tour takes to the true back roads of central and western Brittany. In this hotbed of cycling, the crowds will be huge, particularly in Plouay (home to the annual WorldTour classic GP de Plouay), over the granite hills of the Montagnes Noires (close to where the famed Boucles de l’Aulne race has been held since the late 19th century), and on the final steep, straight 2km climb to the finish above the town of Mûr de Bretagne.

Brittany is famed for producing top cyclists. The legendary Lucien Petit-Breton, who lived at Plessé, near Redon, won the 1907 and ’08 Tours. Jean Robic won the 1947 Tour after making a remarkable comeback with second place on stage 19, a 139km individual time trial across Brittany that scaled the Mûr-de-Bretagne climb, not far from his home in Radenac.

Virtual GC after stage 2

(The top 20 GC favorites)
1. Cadel Evans 9:46:47
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:03
3. Andy Schleck s.t.
4. Brad Wiggins s.t.
5. Tejay Van Garderen at 0:04
6. Andreas Klöden at 0:09
7. Chris Horner s.t.
8. Jani Brajkovic s.t.
9. Levi Leipheimer s.t.
10. Robert Gesink at 0:11
11. Alexander Vinokourov at 0:31
12. Jorgen Van den Broeck at 0:38
13. Nicolas Roche 0:52
14. Ivan Basso 0:56
15. Ryder Hesjedal at 1:13
16. Alberto Contador at 1:41
17. Christian Vande Velde at 1:48
18. Roman Kreuziger at 2:20
19. Samuel Sanchez at 2:35
20. Jérôme Coppel at 2:50

Louison Bobet, from St. Méen-le-Grand, near Rennes, was the first man to do the Tour triple (1953-54-55). And Bernard Hinault won the Tour five times between 1978 and 1985. Hinault’s hometown of Yffiniac is on the route of Wednesday stage 5, 42km before the finish at Cap Fréhel.

Because there is no rain in the forecast, the helicopter cameras will reveal the full beauty of the rugged Breton coast on Wednesday after hopefully capturing the flag-waving exuberance of the fans on Tuesday’s climbs. Even when I was an amateur racer in Brittany all those years ago — I raced for the U.C. Korrigans of Vannes (Korrigans is the Breton word for leprechauns!) — the enthusiasm of the crowds was infectious at the dozens of races in towns and villages that the Tour peloton is traversing this week, including Mûr-de-Bretagne.

Everyone is predicting that Belgian champion Philippe Gilbert will win again, but the Mûr-de-Bretagne hill is twice as steep as last Saturday’s Mont des Alouettes, with a dead-straight first kilometer that averages 10 percent, followed by another kilometer the same grade as the Alouettes.

Gilbert will surely have to be wary of climbers who have figured on the Mur-de-Huy finish at the Fleche Wallonne spring classic, including BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans, Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck, Lampre-ISD’s Damiano Cunego and the two team leaders who missed out on Saturday because of the pileup: Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez and Saxo Bank-SunGard’s Albert Contador.

Besides the stage honors, Evans in particular has a strong chance of taking over the yellow jersey, even if he doesn’t beat Gilbert to the line. But whoever wins, or loses, those Breton fans will be animated in their support for a sport dear to their hearts,

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