Regular readers will know by now that I am a Francophile. I’ve also been a big fan of the Tour de France ever since I cycled a 2500 mile tour of my own when I was 19 years old: travelling through Brittany, Vendée, Bordeaux, the Pyrenees, Andorra, the Massif Central, Geneva, the Jura and finishing in Paris.
Le Tour, one of the world’s greatest sporting events, starts today with a relatively flat stage near Les Herbiers. It is a benign start to what most people agree will be one of the most vicious in Tour history with a high number of the 21 stages having mountainous routes, including the highest stage finish in its history on the Col du Galibier at 2,645 metres (8,678 feet) altitude.
As an armchair fan of the race I also enjoy the beauty and extent of France’s trees and forests witnessed by the riders. Unlike the riders, who will be at the limit of their physical endurance for 6 hours a day, I can sit back and relish the helicopter- and motorbike-mounted TV images of rural France, intersected by the winding snake of the multi-coloured peloton. For those who are lucky enough to see the Tour pass by their front doors, trees in the iconic leafy streets and boulevards provide welcome shade for them and the millions of other French people who come out to cheer the riders. Last year some ingenious fans built a giant bike made from wooden telegraph poles and other timber.
Sometimes the absence of trees is notable, particularly Mont Ventoux, infamous for its treeless lunar-like landscape and for the punishing gradients of this Hors Catégorie climb. Riders will be pleased that it is not included in the 2011 Tour. This year, as it has ever since 1975, the last stage of the Tour de France finishes on the Champs-Élysées; perhaps the most famous tree avenue in the world.
Another tree-related link with the Tour is Team Sky’s decision to ride in green this year to raise awareness of Sky Rainforest Rescue: the team colours will adorn riders’ jerseys, bikes and support vehicles. In a three year partnership between Sky and WWF they aim to help save a billion trees in the state of Acre, northwest Brazil – read more.
Trees also feature in some of the more painful memories of the Tour, including this crash by Rogers in 2007:
In the UK you can watch the Tour on ITV4 and elsewhere in Europe on Eurosport or Sky.