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Preview: Tour de L’Aude

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(Or in French, the race that goes to 11). With the sad slow demise of the Grande Boucle, the Tour de L’Aude has become the most important stage race in France, and second only to the Giro on the annual calendar (small hint: if asked to comment post race, the preferred phrasing is "one of the top two"). So just for that persistence the organisers deserve a pretty hefty slap on the back. But when you see what they have to work with then any congratulations seem totally inadequate For the Aude is a French department. A very nice one admittedly, right at the very southern end of France with sandy Mediterranean beaches and touching the foothills of the Pyrenees, but still one of the 96 departments that make up mainland France. At its widest perhaps 120km from east to west, and no more than 2/3 that from north to south. And those are the maximums. Last year the Tour de France rode through in a couple of hours en route to Perpignan. Yet every year the locals manage to find enough roads to put on a ten day stage race, and every year they manage to add a bit of variety. Of course some old favourites re-appear year after year, but l’Aude simply isn’t big enough to offer a completely new route every year. Read on for a run down of this year’s stages.

Prologue Friday 14th May - Gruissan – 3.9km – Individual Time Trial

Nicole_cooke_mediumThe traditional opening. Just about every year for at least the past decade the Tour de l’Aude has begun with a time trial in the coastal resort of Gruissan. Once they had a road race instead, and a couple of times a team time trial, but usually it’s one against the clock. Either the people of Gruissan like their time trials or they aren’t around at the right time to object, seeing as over 80% of local houses are second homes.

The course is a completely flat circuit along the main town road, out to the bypass, along that to the next junction then back to the start, the only possible enemies the wind and the sand. There’s no nice map, bu if you down load the stage route from here and combine it with this view from Google maps, then it’s the big yellow loop. Or if you prefer moving pictures then last year Greasemonkey Benny filmed Trine Schmidt’s ride to 10th place.

I knew that the name Gruissan sounded familiar, so how the hell did I manage to forget those incredible beach houses from Betty Blue. If you look for photos of how they are today then they have virtually all been modernised, so just enjoy them as they were in the clip above.

Thanks to Ted for finding which lets you do these great little route previews. It's based on and linked to Google Maps, so you can zoom in and even switch to the street view to have a look at the roads up close. Move your mouse pointer along the profile to match it to the location on the map. I've done as best I can based on the published routes, but beware that I may be a bit out in places.

Bike route 489206 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 1 Saturday 15th May - Rieux Minervois - Rieux Minervois – 117km

The first proper stage is a flat meander around the vineyards of the Minervois to the east of Carcassonne, and possible the only place in the world where someone has looked at sausages and raspberries and thought "I bet they go together well". The road goes up and down a bit, but nothing that fresh legs can’t handle. Expect a bunch sprint to end the day. Here's the route and map

Bike route 485187 - powered by Bikemap 



Stage 2 Sunday 16th May - Clermont l'Hérault - Clermont l'Hérault – 34.5km – Team Time Trial

Here’s one of the secrets of how the Tour de l’Aude manages to fit so much variety inside a single French department: they cheat. For stage 3’s team time trial they move north in to the neighbouring department of Herault. Clermont l'Hérault is a completely new stop for the Tour, and is one of the few occasions in the year that the women get to ride a team time trial. That also means, sadly, that this is the point where the bigger teams take control of the race. It’s one of those events that everyyone is in two minds about. Yes it disadvantages the little teams, but hey, it looks really really great. And you can’t run it any later in the week because you risk automatically eliminating teams that have already lost some riders and don’t have enough left to cross the finish line and register a time. In the past the organisers have had rules limiting the maximum time losses according to position: the second placed team will be given a time limiting their loss to a maximum of 20s, the third 30s and so on, and I assume this will continue. The course runs out west from Clermont l'Hérault through the hills to the south of Lac du Salagou, an artificial lake popular with fishermen and mountain bikers. Take route and map and combine.

Bike route 489239 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 3 Monday 17th May - Lezignan Corbières- Lezignan Corbières – 110km

Draw a straight line between Gruissan and Rieux Minervois, and Lezignan Corbières will fall right in the middle of it, although the change in suffix should give you a hint that we are now in a completley different country – Corbières country. Who needs silly drinking games, this here’s the real deal (suggestions for accompanying cheeses, however, will be gratefully received). Today’s stage has the first categorised climbs of the Tour, two little second category bumps in the road, 4.5 and 3km long respectively, that should force some unlucky victim into the jersey of shame, but the last 40km or so are almost flat, so it looks like another day for the sprinters.(In your finest Swerish chef impersonation) heeshsha sheeesha sheesha route. heeshsha sheeesha sheesha map. heeshsha sheeesha sheesha chicken. Probably best done without the chicken.

Bike route 489269 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 4 Tuesday 18th May – Osseja - Osseja – 97km

Once again, and as they have done fot the last three years, the Tour de l’Aude cheats and leaves the Aude, this time heading south to Osseja in Pyrénées-Orientales for a day in the mountains. No less than three HC climbs are covered today, although the first is the only one where the riders start right at the bottom. For the first 5km out of Osseja the road descends gently to the village of Caldegas, 1165m above the sea, then things get tougher. The first climb is up through Targassonne (home of a famous boulder field and an early attempt to make the biggest frickin’ laser in the world. OK, that’s a lie, it’s really an old solar power research station but it looks like Ken Adam had a hand in the design) and over the Col de Calvaire at 1836m high. The last 2km of that are an average of 10%. The road then drops 300m before climbing back to the Col de Creu at 1712m. That’s the second HC of the day, even though a similar gain in height on stage 3 only rated as a cat 2 climb. The third climb of the day, the Col de la Lose likewise only demands 400m of actual ascent, and it is then followed by 25km of descent before the road turns uphill again for the last 4km back in to Osseja. Here’s the route and map.

Bike route 484289 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 5 Wednesday 19th May – Amelie Les Bains - Amelie Les Bains – 104.5km

We stay in Pyrénées-Orientales, but move a bit further east into an odd flat bit of France across the Pyrenees. The course is a figure of eight shaped one that starts in Amelie les Bains, loops out first to the west and over the cat 1 Col de Corsavy then returns to Amelie les Bains for an easten loop over the cat 1 Col Xatard. It’s a day designed for a breakaway, and just in case you didn’t get the message there’s also a sprinter killing cat 2 bump, the Côte de la Borne, just 3.5km from the end. Map. Route. I had half intended to do these in Google Earth, after all by the time you've found the place on the map it's not a lot of effort to click there to add a pin. But I failed at step one. Installation.

Bike route 489313 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 6 Thursday 20th May – Castelnaudary - Castelnaudary – 100km

Castelnaudary features in most editions of the Tour de L’Aude. The town itself is at the far western end of the Aude, and it was once important as the high point of the Canal du Midi, where the Grand Bassin supplied water for the numerous locks, and of course French canals gave us the greatest film ever made. No wine today, but for those of you suffering from a meat deficit Castelnaudary is also the home of the Cassoulet, a stew containing no less than five different types of meat: bacon, lamb pork belly , duck and sausage. If that’s not enough then some also add a bit of pate to enrichen the sauce. A looped course leading almost up to Carcassonne can be tweaked in various ways to add a few climbs, depending on the intent of the organisers. Last year this was stage 4, and in the final 10km a break got away consisting of Marianne Vos, Nicole Cooke and Cervelo pair Claudia Häusler and Regina Bruins. Will this year’s two cat 2s, the Côte de Fanjeaux and the Côte Puy de Faucher at 27km and 17 km respectively from the finish offer the same opportunities, or will the contenders be holding off until tomorrow. Route. Map.

Bike route 489344 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 7 Friday 21st May – Limoux - Roquefeuil – 105km


A week in and the Tour at last gets a point to point stage. And after coming so tantalisingly close to the finish line in Carcassonne yesterday we head once more into the distance. To the hills at the very south of the Aude, for two more days of climbing. Today’s wine is the less well known Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling wine often overlooked in favour of its northern cousins, even though it predates Dom Perignon’s efforts by a century or so (although if you want to know what someone thinks of it, find a phrase other than comment est votre blanquette). Limoux has been the site of the last stage of the Tour for much of the past decade, and on most of those occasions Ina Teutenberg has been the winner. Going grupetto here will be a novel experience for her as the race leaves Limoux and heads southwards into the hills. In store today are two cat2s, one cat 1 and the HC Col de Dent which is 13.5km of climbing including a couple of stretches of 10% gradient. Map. Route. Route. Map. Just Like That!

Bike route 485419 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 8 Saturday 22st May – Aunat - Limoux – 112km

The start is a few miles away from yesterday’s finish, and the stage is roughly the mirror of stage 7, but avoiding the big climbs. There is one cat 1 at Col du Font de Razouls, roughly halfway through the stage, and a little bump on the way down which gets classified as cat 3, but the last 30km are as near to flat you’ll get in this area. Route and map again.

Bike route 489366 - powered by Bikemap 


Stage 9 Sunday 23st May – Carcassonne - Carcassonne – 90.5km

I don’t know if this is a first ever for the Tour de L’Aude, but it’s certainly the first ime this millennium that they have been to the department capital Carcassonne, and it looks like they are trying to put on a local equivalent to the Champs Elysees stage of the Tour de France. The stage starts in the centre of Carcassonne, heads south into the hills and over a couple of climbs, one cat 3 and one cat 2, before returning to Carcassonne for five loops of a flat circuit through the centre of the town. No wine today, but if Thursday’s cassoulet wasn’t quite rich enough for you, in Carcassonne they substitute partridge for the duck. Possibly not a good supper the night before if you are a sprinter, although all the climbers and GC types can tuck in knowing that they just have to hang on now for victory. If you want a closer look at the finishing circuit then work your way round with Google’s street view; here’s the route and the map, start working the little man.

Bike route 489424 - powered by Bikemap 


There’s not much news yet on team line-ups, so for now we can just post whatever snippets we find in the comments. I’ve not heard anything regarding video, either. The local news programmes may have a segment or two, but last year there was just a half hour highlights programme shown on Sport+, a pretty minor pay channel, one Sunday night a couple of weeks after the race. In the meantime this site has lots and lots of photos from last year and beyond

All photos courtesy Chris Fontecchio, except Claudia Häusler, which is courtesy Cervélo TestTeam.