The sat nav indicates that we’re in the Atlantic Ocean. Time to call the coastguard and start bailing out the car? We calmly carry on driving, past pools of water and occasional Waterworld-esque lookout towers to our sides as we go.
This is an oddity, but an expected one. We’re on our way to the island of Noirmoutier for a French Grand Départ that’s away from the mainland and the norm. It can be reached either by a 600-metre modern bridge or the hipster’s long way round that we choose: a narrow four-kilometre road across a sandbank in the Bay of Bourgneuf, only accessible at low tide. By the time we reach the other shore, L’Hexagone’s land mass feels very distant, glimmering faintly on the horizon.
This little island in the mid-west consists of several villages, crisscrossed by lanes, oyster farms and salt marshes: quite the change of gear from recent metropolitan Grand Départs in the likes of Düsseldorf, Utrecht and Yorkshire. Its nucleus, Noirmoutier-en-L’Île, is a haven for holidaymakers, home to gourmand-pleasing restaurants and whitewashed houses with royal blue shutters.
At the local poissonnerie, the langoustines are so fresh they’re still twitching behind the counter. In a charming square off the main strip of shops, we happen upon a proprietor cleaning the red wall of his ivy-covered restaurant, adjacent to the local chateau. Meanwhile, the bar opposite takes delivery of beer barrels and a local lady cycles past on a bike with a laden basket. She’s a protruding baguette away from making this the ultimate fulfillment of a foreigner’s twee French stereotype.
Only 10,000 people live permanently on Noirmoutier; about 70 per cent of its properties are second homes. Then summer arrives, along with over a million tourists looking to get away from it all, only to probably end up lying next to their bourgeois neighbour on one of the picturesque island’s many beaches. The town won’t be nearly so tranquil on July 7. “When the Tour comes, it’s hell,” says Benédicte Deprez, a bookshop owner on the island.
Deprez was part of a recent humanitarian campaign on the island to stop the Vendée sending immigrants back to their home countries. Eight Afghans arrived in October 2016 after Calais’s “Jungle” camp was disbanded. “They had just been trying to get to England, but after a few weeks in Noirmoutier, they wanted to stay here,” she explains.
Within a year, Sifat was the last to remain: he learned French, made local friends and started work at a masonry company. But despite all this, and the protests of hundreds of islanders, the Vendée prefecture denied his request to stay in November 2017. Nevertheless, theirs is one island mentality, of inclusivity and community, that deserves celebration. As a banner in their 250-strong human chain against expulsion read: “Build bridges, not walls”.
On that note, the peloton will leave the island via the modern Pont de Noirmoutier. The Tour organisers had originally intended to head out over the more photogenic Passage du Gois, the causeway road that went down in Tour infamy in 1999, until they hit a snag: it’ll be under several feet of water. Having shifted the race start back a week so the mountain stages wouldn’t clash with the World Cup, the tide times were out of whack.
The stiff sea breezes blowing off the Atlantic should overpower any faint whiff of anti-climax as locals enjoy a remarkable fifth Vendée Grand Départ in the last 25 years. From Noirmoutier, the opening stage heads south through the Marais Breton, just inland from the area’s dramatic coastline. The last couple of hours into Fontenay-le-Comte are the prettiest, crossing the aerially mesmerising Vendée marshlands. Unless the wind blows, there is little obvious impediment to a bunch sprint.
Nevertheless, like the island of Noirmoutier itself, a point-to-point road stage to start the Tour gives reason to dream. Every one of the 176 competitors who lines up in the place Florent Caillaud could feasibly take the yellow jersey. For fans too, after weeks of build-up, day one is the exciting unfurling of the great unknown. The fast men could yet be flummoxed by a surprise attacker like Jan Bakelants, the first maillot jaune from another island Tour start, Corsica 2013. Now that would be no drop in the ocean.
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