Le Tour conquers economic mountains

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Media captionGeorges Vigneau of the Donezan Tourist Office explains the value of the Tour de France and the cost of bringing it to the region.

The road to the summit of Col de Pailheres and its place in the Tour de France plays a vital role in the economy of the small French district of Donezan.

Since its first inclusion in the race in 2003, the challenge of cycling one of the Pyrenees' highest mountain passes has seen the race return four times, and helped to attract a growing number of tourists to an area that typifies the romanticised idea of rural France.

"The publicity from the Tour de France is something we couldn't usually afford to pay for on television," says Georges Vigneau, director of the Donezan Tourist Office.

"With so many networks covering it and the seven helicopters, a lot of people get to see our region."

Mr Vigneau added that because the Tour has so far only passed through Donezan rather than starting or finishing a stage there, the costs are minimal.

"The only costs for us are organisational ones - parking and the bins three days in advance and two days after.

"It's only the start and finish towns that pay, when you are only on the route of the Tour you don't pay. We're a region of 535 people, it's big village really, and we couldn't pay 500,000 euros ($644,000; £431,000).

The only other outlay for Donezan appeared to be the price of banners, and painting the regional symbol - a multi-coloured maple leaf - prominently on the road.

In return, cycling brings vital income to a remote area that has traditionally been reliant upon a farming sector, which locals say is in decline.

Stream of fans

The Tour's route through Donezan goes through the village of Mijanes, whose main road is less than 500 meters long.

On the morning of this year's passage, I followed fans who had come to watch as they made their way along the roads between Mijanes, neighbouring village Querigut, and further up the mountain.

Image caption Tour de France cyclists in the Pyrenees in this year's race

With the road closed to motor traffic from mid-morning, human-powered transport was the only way to reach the hairpins where the first serious mountain battles of this year's Tour stage took place.

Up until the arrival of the publicity caravan, an hour ahead of the race, a steady stream of riders and pedestrians of all ages made their way through Mijanes, their passage interrupted by the opportunity to refill their water bottles at the village fountain, and a solitary policeman's insistence that they dismount and walk - which they did until rounding the next corner.

Some also stopped in at the Relais de Pailheres hotel for refreshment. It has been run by the Labourgade family since 1905, and the current owner Maryse told me that from the moment the climb opens for the summer, her business benefits from cycling, even in the years when the Tour is not due to pass through.

That includes riders making their way across the Pyrenees on touring holidays and those riding locally.

On Friday afternoon, as I was talking to her, a tour guide breathlessly rushed in in search of a meal for a group of clients. As he dashed outside again to bring his group in, she told me that the kitchen always has pasta ready for cyclists as they could turn up at any time of day in search of a meal.

On race day a temporary snack bar had also sprung up to take advantage of the passing custom in the village, but the big screen in the adjacent barn couldn't be persuaded to work, meaning there was little reason for spectators to stay and spend after the race had passed.

Minutes after the vehicle marking the end of the race convoy had passed, people began to make the journey away in search of somewhere to watch, or perhaps attempting to beat the crowds coming from further up.

Down the road in the village of Rouze, a working big screen had attracted a small crowd of those spilling down the mountain. They clustered under an awning of a temporary bar to enjoy the stage finish, which saw UK rider Chris Froome claim the yellow jersey and dash the hopes of many of his main rivals.

Long-term benefit

Cycling fans arrived on the mountain as much as a week in advance, some with campervans, some with tents and all determined to grab the best spot to see Saturday's spectacle.

Querigut, the main village in Donezan, is not on the race's route. However, it has small supermarket where visitors to the area can stock up on other essential provisions. According to the supermarket's owners, bread, beer and petrol were the main demands amongst those who had come to watch the Tour.

Image caption Riders in the Tour de France going through a Pyrenees stage

Jean Bernard Roque, who runs the Auberge du Donezan hotel and restaurant in Querigut, says that despite being "a little bit away from the route", every time the Tour goes through Donezan "the hotel is full for a day or two".

He added: "It's a sort of helping hand to the region, because we need to make ourselves known.

"The impact is in the long term, not over one year. In the space of ten years, we've seen, little by little, more people arriving to ride their bikes from all over - Danish, American, Scots, Dutch, Australian."

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