Stage 9 & Chateau des Rontets
Just as a challenging vintage can make or break a winemaker’s bottle, a particularly mountainous stage or a multitude of crashes can upset the GC or destroy a bike racer’s career. In every Tour de France we expect surprises, and this year, it was Stage 7, a particularly flat route from Les Mans to Chateauroux, that sent Jack from the box to steal the earth from beneath many a bike racer’s wheel.
Team Sky’s leader, Bradley Wiggins, (who was currently 6th in the GC overall) was the first of such contenders to see the fruit of his labors taken out by a grape splitting storm. At 180km with only 38km to go, he went down in a crash that took out all but 61 riders, leaving team HTC at the front to close the gap with the breakaway peloton. As they neared the line, HTC’s lead out train peeled off like skin, one by one, leading Cavendish to the line for yet another stage win.
Stage 8 turned the key and opened Pandora’s box. Beginning in Aigurande and winding through the Massif Central, southeast and towards Burgundy, the mountainous stage ended in Super-Besse Sancy. Launching an attack at kilometer six, Christophe Riblon of Ag2R La Mondiale was not deterred by the four climbs that remained ahead. Followed by eight riders from seven different teams, this breakaway of nine worked together to stay away from the peloton for most of the race.
Claire Gazeau & Fabio Montrasi
Usually, the peloton will let a breakaway dangle if it lacks contenders who can topple the GC’s the top ten. And with Rui Alberto Costa of Movistar Team being the highest ranking rider in the breakaway at #43, he surprised all by becoming the leader of the Tour at 45km, if only for a moment. And though all nine riders in the breakaway were hungry to win the stage, it was in their collective best interest to work together, so that the breakaway could stay away. At the front of the line each rider pulled his turn at high speed, before flicking his elbow and moving aside, enabling the rider behind him to pull through, so that he could hop to the back of the train and recover on the wheel of the last man’s ride.
International teamwork such as this certainly isn’t limited to a breakaway peloton in the Tour de France. At Chateau des Rontets, in the Maconnais village of Fuisse, there is a bi-national husband and wife team that took over her family’s vineyards. In Claire Gazeau’s family since 1850, the vineyard was 100% French, until Claire’s husband, Fabio Montrasi from Milano, Italy came on board and joined the team. And though he may not have had to fight like a sprinter for position at 100m to go at the finish line, gaining entry and acceptance in Burgundy as an Italian winemaker, could not have been easy.
At the second and third hours, the peloton picked up speed, with BMC riding at the front for Cadel Evans, until teams Astana and Garmin-Cervelo realized that they also had leaders for whom they should work. Perhaps sensing the breath of peloton on their spines, the breakaway accelerated with attacks by Riblon, who may have known that Alexandre Vinokourov (of Astana) wasn't far behind. On the lips of every announcer as he plucked riders like grapes, Vinokourov chased and climbed, but at the base of Super-Besse Sancy, he found that his glass was empty. Up ahead, it was Costa who maintained pressure, popping the cork for a stupendous win at the line.
Clos Varambon at Chateau des Rontets
When Clare and Fabio first appeared at Chateau des Rontets, they were armed with a commitment to returning the family vineyards to their natural state. Practicing organic and biodynamic agriculture on soils of slate and clay-limestone with a pebbly subsoil that maximizes drainage, the family hand harvests their grapes, both old vines (“Les Birbettes” from 1910 and 1920) and new (1945-2000). Chateau des Rontets also employs natural yeasts and lightly filters only one of their cuvees, the “Clos Varambon”–enclosed like a peloton and located on hills overlooking Fuisse. And while adhering to such practices is not as wildly unpredictable as any given stage in the Tour de France, there is something lovely to be said for letting nature alone to work its magic.
Poor Vinokourov. Stage 9 followed eight climbs from Issoire, which lies approximately 125 km as the crow flies east, from the base of Burgundy near Lyon. And just as a hailstorm can destroy a vintage of crops, a single crash can destroy a racer’s career or season. As the peloton descended col du Pas de Peynol, the second climb of the day, there was a crash (pictured atop), at 102 km that sent Vinokourov careening off the side of the road. Forced to abandon, he was joined by Van Den Broeck, Kloden, Willems, and Zabriskie, who also sustained injuries that ended their Tour. Having escaped the carnage, the members of Leopard-Trek made a gentlemen’s agreement with Hushovd and Gilbert to ease the pace on the remainder of the descent, benefitting the six men up ahead, who were being driven by Eurpocar’s Thomas Voeckler. Controlling the train’s escape, he kept the pace high and though he didn’t win the stage, (that honor went to Rabobank’s Sanchez) he took the Yellow Jersey from Hushovd, who was knocked down to 24th place.