Procycling - - STAGE 1 - Writer: Sam Dan­sie

The !irst kilo­me­tre zero of the 2018 race was placed op­po­site a ram­bling shack owned by a saunier, an an­cient­look­ing man who pro­duces salt in his cor­ner of the salt marsh basins that pro­lif­er­ate across Noirmoutier-en-l’Île. As the wa­ter evap­o­rates from the basins with heat and wind, salt builds up on the basin bed and the saunier ex­tracts it by hand. The shed’s ram­shackle wooden walls held up a roof of hap­haz­ardly laid fresh straw. The side near­est the road was open and dou­bled as his shop shelf, where 250g bags of his !in­est pro­duce, !leur de sel, sell for €4. The in­te­rior con­tained a daybed, a basin, some tins on shelves and the rudi­men­tary equip­ment of his trade. To be a saunier looks like a call­ing, not a job.

He watched from a dis­tance and with in­ter­est as the kilo­me­tre zero marker was put up. Hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­ered to watch the in­evitable !irst at­tack of the Tour.

For the 20 min­utes prior to the race, kilo­me­tre zero re­ceived a host of vis­i­tors. Andy Sch­leck, driv­ing VIPs around in the !lotilla of green and sil­ver Skoda cars, stopped and spoke to fans. Thomas Voeck­ler, who re­tired last year but is now the mo­tor­bike re­porter for France Télévi­sions, was given a hero’s wel­come – he was an adopted Vendéen af­ter a ca­reer spent rid­ing for var­i­ous it­er­a­tions of the lo­cal pro­fes­sional team, Di­rect En­ergie.

Tour di­rec­tor Chris­tian Prud­homme got the race un­der­way in a blur of cars and mo­tor­bikes as he dropped the !lag. Yoann O!fredo, Jérôme Cousin, and Kévin Ledanois had a call­ing of their own to­day. They sat on race car num­ber one’s bumper and es­caped un­op­posed. All French, but both Cousin and Ledanois had strong links to the Vendée. Cousin has spent six of his eight-year ca­reer on Di­rect En­ergie. Ledanois comes from Saint-Jean-deMonts, which the race passed af­ter 30km. The break was doomed of course, but Cousin and Ledanois – the lat­ter would end up with the !irst polka dot jersey of the Tour – made their con­tri­bu­tion to the pomp of the Vendée’s grand dé­part. Just as the saunier makes to the re­gion by keep­ing his an­cient pro­fes­sion go­ing.

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