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By Rupert Guinness
You know when the Tour de France is really hitting its straps when animals begin to take a larger focus in day-to-day life during the three-week 3427km race. Maybe what made me think of animals were the aromas emanating from the floor of the stage 5 press room here in Nevers — an exhibition hall that holds agricultural shows judging by the stench of cattle pee.
If not, one thing is as sure as the sun setting over Nevers after a day that saw temperatures reach 31 Celsius (88 Fahrenheit): this 1000-strong band of centenary Tour media hacks need a wash. But think of it. Look back at every image and photo you’ve seen from Tours past. Animals are a part of the race as much as people are. Always will be.
This year has been no exception. When the Tour began in Paris a week ago, the closest we got to any beast were black poodles that aging madams walked by with alongside the River Seine.
As the Tour left the French capital, their role progressed. We saw hay bales built on top of each other in the form of cattle. Or were they sheep. Maybe horses?
Then came the sheep – live ones at that – huddled while they grazed on plush green farmland by the roadside, seemingly oblivious to what was passing them. And twice we have seen a dozen cattle all in a row that were either ready for a group photo shoot or lined up to watch the peloton race by.
In time, as is the case in most years, we’ll also see cattle and sheep draped in sheets painted in either the yellow, green or red-and-white polka-dot colors of the various leaders’ jerseys. Most probably too, the pack will sometimes find itself followed by horses frightened by the whirring sound of pedals, cars and helicopters.
Today, one French journalist even arrived on the race with his little foot-sniffing dog in tow, declaring that, yes, two-year-old “pooh-pooh” will be with us all the way to Paris.
Inevitably along the way back to Paris, stage winners in many of the rural towns will also find themselves becoming the new and less-than-proud owners of some farm stock. It is rural France’s way of not only promoting its produce and stock, but of offering the Tour organization a traditional exchange in thanks for directing the race it way.
Even chickens can earn a cameo role. As one did two nights ago, but late at night on television and in circumstances that quite frankly we would rather not describe. The least said the better; but suffice to say that were this chook’s sacrifice an offering of goodwill, Tour race director Jean-Marie Leblanc would never eat chicken again!
However, tomorrow and during stage 6 – the second longest of the Tour – through the rich farming lands between Nevers and Lyon, the animals take on even greater importance.
On Friday, the Tour and all but the vegetarians among the 5000-strong race entourage will celebrate the Charolais – the tenderest, tastiest and most treasured beef in France. The Charolais is a popular Tour icon. The race often celebrates its quality by passing through the lands that the beautiful white beast grazes.
And with virtual pagan reverence, the course is often highlighted by one official celebration that offers much valued dégustations of a pavé of Charolais. Friday’s Charolais bash will be 123km down the 230km route at the town of St Julien de Civry at the Ferme du Guidon (French for “handlebar”).
There is added historical importance to the social significance of the occasion. The farm was the birthplace of the 1975 and 1977 Tour champion Bernard Thévenet. Word is, lunch starts at 10.30am. Warning is, that you don’t want to be late.
Our plan? What’s the point? We’ve been late or lost everywhere else this Tour, why start now?