THE TOUR OFFICIALLY STARTS HERE
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.