A WIDE AND OPEN LAND
The sky in this part of France is vast. The landscape is flat in every direction though in some places it tilts up almost imperceptibly. Not enough to class any of the roads as climbs, but enough for you to gaze back along the race route through bare, ploughed fields, and watch the slow progress of the peloton from a great distance. The trees are beginning to show autumnal tints of yellow and brown and the crops are all long since harvested, but it still looks like a tamed, cultivated landscape, with signs of activity and industry everywhere you look.
We’ve stopped off at the 75km point on the route, just after the small town of Cloyes-sur-le-Loir. The peloton took the long route from Brou, heading north east, then turning south and south west in an open loop. If they’d looked right across the open fields at the 55km mark, they might have seen the skyline of Brou, just a few kilometres away from them.
This may be La France profonde, but it’s not empty of spectators. At the point we’ve chosen to stop, at the top of a gently sloping field, there are no houses visible, yet we can count 37 people who have congregated by the side of the road. Paris-Tours is famous for this – small gaggles of fans and onlookers, some of whom, in the clichéd photograph of the race, wear full hunting gear and carry rifles.
Michel, an elderly man who lives in a hamlet beyond a line of trees which lines the field, tells me that he comes here most years to watch the race pass by. His wife points out that this is not where the action of the race is, however. “We don’t see them for more than 30 seconds,” she says.
Michel retired here after a lifetime spent working in agriculture for a big cereal producer near Orléans. “Life is quiet here,” he explains. “No traffic jams, no pollution. Not a lot happens here but there’s a nice local life, which keeps us busy.
“There’s a lot of hunting, mainly deer and boars, but it’s not all rural workers. One of my neighbours is a builder, the other works in a bank. It’s a nice place to live, but we’re on the dividing line here between the oceanic and continental weather systems. It can be minus 10 in the winter.”
Michel’s father was a cycling coach, but Michel didn’t get the bug. “I didn’t take it up. Farming was tiring enough, and I like football better,” he says.
When the race comes through there’s a small group of five riders together at the front – Romain Combaud, Michael Goolaerts, Lawrence Naesen, Stéphane Poulhies and Brian van Goethem - Conti and ProConti riders all - who are about five minutes ahead of the peloton. Shortly afterwards, the bunch arrives, although they appear to be in no rush as they tap past, with a Quick-Step rider leading the way.
We’d watched from the start at kilometre zero as the first attack, led by Combaud, went away. In Cloyes, we were only a third of the way through, but it looked like the pattern of the race was already well established.