The Tour de France can have a certain homogenising effect on the places its visit.
Once it has spread out its effects on various conurbations – crowd control barriers, traffic islands removed, roads lined by spectators wearing hats thrown by the caravan – some locations on the route appear interchangeable.
There’s no danger of that on Noirmoutier, the location of the 2018 edition’s Grand Départ. It’s a little jewel off the midwestern coast surrounded by sea at high tide, attached to the French mainland by a modern bridge and an 18th-century submersible causeway, the Passage du Gois.
It can’t be mere coincidence that the last five French Grand Départs (and the next one, Nice in 2020) have all started in coastal locations. The organisers know when they’re onto a good thing: sea. It lends a visual grandeur from the various helicopter shots. The beginnings of the Atlantic Ocean around the peloton will achieve an impressive effect: making the Tour circus look small.
Noirmoutier (literally “black minster”, so-called after the 7th century monastery founded here) doesn’t need the Tour de France to attract tourists; every summer the little island of 10,000 receives an influx of bougie sun-seekers.
Though it’s a picturesque place with striking white beach huts, oyster farms and salt marshes, the Tour will eschew the sights for the island’s main artery, a functional two-lane D-road leading to its windy modern bridge.
Alas, when the race was moved back a week, so that the high mountains would not clash with the World Cup, the change in tide times meant that the original plan of starting over the Passage du Gois (below) was sunk. This slippery tract was the location of a big crash early in the 1999 race.
Getting in the first breakaway of the Tour matters for sponsors too, and you’ll get short odds on Vendée-based team Direct Energie and breakaway addicts Wanty-Groupe Gobert having a rider up there.
The race heads south just inland from the Atlantic, through Saint-Jean-de-Monts, the tacky seaside town of Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez and the dense pines of the Forêt Dominiale des Pays de Monts.
Midrace, the bunch will hare through the resort of Les Sables d’Olonne, a regular stage finish in Tours of the 1920s. If the wind blows hard off the sea, there could be echelon drama here or later.
Heading east inland, the final 70 kilometres are the easiest on the eye, criss-crossing yellow rapeseed fields and mesmerising marshland. The Vendée paymasters behind the Grand Départ will be happy with those aerial camera shots, as we were when we got up there with the local flying club.
Look out for Triaze’s idiosyncratic church spire, tacked onto their 12th century church, too. There’s a 24-hour baguette machine out here in the middle of rural Vendée too, but the peloton will be going through too much pain to stop for pain.
In front, the break will be vying for the race’s first King of the Mountain points at the Côte de Vix, 40 kilometres from the finish. On a day spent virtually entirely at sea level, this category-4 molehill is far from sufficient to stop the likely outcome: a bunch sprint for glory.
The run-in to the finish at Fontenay-le-Comte is fast and flat, though both nerves and the freshness of the field will make it one of the sketchiest days on the race. The last three kilometres contain two roundabouts and there is a 90 degree right turn before the flamme rouge.
The race’s Champs-Élysées finale is often hailed as the unofficial world championship of sprinters, but this first flat road stage of the Tour arguably has a truer claim to being the bunch gallop of the season. It’s the one day where the sport’s leading fast men are in attendance, equally fit and going all-out for the win: “You don’t know the form of the others, so the first time, you go 100 per cent,” Mark Cavendish told Cycle Sport in 2009.
And what a pay-off for the man who wins the opener. He and his team get the yellow jersey, set the initial tone for the race and shed all that pre-race pressure at the earliest opportunity.
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