Europe

Tour de France set for epic finish through wine country

Andy Schleck (right) and Alberto Contador, 22 July
Image caption Set for a battle on the road from Salies de Bearn to Bordeaux: Alberto Contador (left) and Andy Schleck

After the gruelling slog of the Pyrenees, and the eye-watering gradients of the Tourmalet, the riders of the Tour de France are heading down the final straight to the finish on Sunday, in Paris.

The next few days take us through the rolling hills of Aquitaine past the Grands Chateaux du Medoc, Chateau Margaux, the great names in French wine - and this Tour de France has certainly been a vintage.

The battle between Alberto Contador of Spain and his fierce rival Andy Schleck of Luxembourg shows no sign of a let-up.

After 3,200km at an average speed of 45km/h there is just eight seconds between them.

The Spaniard now holds the upper hand - crucial since he is better on the relative flat of the last three stages - but Schleck matches him for steely determination.

It is the perfect duel for a race dogged in recent years by endless doping scandals.

And no better host for the beginning of stage 18 than Salies de Bearn. The last time the race was here it was in July 1939, two months from the outbreak of World War II.

This year they have fought off some fierce competition to win the honour again. There is a carnival in town that not even the unusually inclement weather can subdue.

Nostalgia

Of course the Tour de France has changed a lot since 1939.

The newspapers of the day show the final positions for the 'two' races staged on the same day.

They broke only for light lunch. There are pictures of them sharing a bottle of water on route and the riders also carried their own spares. Most are featured with the inner tubes of their tyres wrapped around their shoulders.

The front page that July 1939 was often split between news of the tour and the looming threat of the Third Reich.

The German and Italian riders had boycotted the race. Little did they know that this would be the last race for seven years.

But in one of the papers, collected by local cycling club president Bernard Morlaas, there is an important clue to how the race looks today.

"The editor of L'Auto was also the founder of the race - Henri Desgrange," he said. "It was his idea to re-fashion the leader's jersey in the same colour - yellow - as his broadsheet paper. "

It is a particularly nostalgic week for Andre Escarpit. In 1939, when he was eight years old, he sat on a wall overlooking the finish.

It was such a tight race that Belgian winner, Marcel Kint, attacked the line head down and ran straight into the official photographer.

"Back then I was the biggest fan of the tour," Mr Escarpit said. "I didn't miss a stage. But my interest waned when the doping scandal started. Couldn't help thinking I was clapping drug cheats."

Damaged image

It is familiar comment these days. Of course when the tour rolls into a small town like this, men practically shake with excitement.

But across the country the evidence suggests that doping scandals and the absence of a real French champion have damaged the image of the tour among the French public.

In a recent survey published by Le Monde, only 44% of participants said that they love the race. And, perhaps more worryingly, 72% of the under-35 said they had no interest. That is the highest figure ever.

Image caption Some in Salies de Bearn remember when the Tour de France was last in town in 1939

But that has not stopped the Mayor of Salies de Bearn, Claude Serres-Cousine, paying up to 50,000 euros ($65,000) for the honour of staging the event.

He is not worried by the recent scandals and knows that whatever track the tour follows, so does the money. And for a tourist town like this, the world's media attention is priceless.

"It is a global event, they watch it in 187 countries, and this week we expect 20,000 spectators," Mr Serres-Cousine said. "Where can you buy publicity like that?"

Legend has it that Salies de Bearn was discovered by a hunter chasing a boar. It led him to the salt on which the town has built its wealth.

This week it is the chase for Bordeaux that brings in the money - and not just for the men in the saddle.

Rumour has it that the Grands Chateaux wine makers lobby hard for the time trial on Saturday. It is one of the shortest legs but for the organisers one of the more profitable.

But the real focus this weekend is the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey, and who is wearing it come the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday.

We are all set for an epic finish, just the tonic for a Tour that was starting to feel the strain.

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