When we look at the route map of the Tour de France our eyes are, understandably, drawn to the mountain stages. We gasp at the vicious saw-tooth profiles with dizzying figures of ascent. Here, we tell ourselves, are the places where the Tour will be won. Yet it is also instructive to look for the stages where the race may be lost. These are the days that give television commentators one of their best clichés: You may not win the Tour de France today, but you can certainly lose it. Like a delegation from some sadistic cult, the Tour’s route designers seek out strong winds. They want to harness the elemental force for their own destructive purposes. “Crosswind chaos!” That’s the newspaper headline they dream of.
This year’s race has two consecutive stages that could either be processional or stressful, depending on the wind. Stage 12 comes after one of the most monstrous mountain stages of the whole race: the double ascent of Mont Ventoux from two different directions. It is five years since a ferocious wind at the summit forced the organizers to shorten the Ventoux stage, piling the crowd into the slopes below Chalet Reynard and ultimately causing Chris Froome’s legendary attempt at the four-minute mile. This year the race will cross the summit twice before dropping to a stage finish in Malaucène.
Brutalized by the Giant of Provence, the peloton will want a relatively restful stage the next day. Here is the organizer’s little joke. Stage 12 runs from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Nîmes. The first section of the route passes through the spectacular gorges of the Ardèche. Then, after the photographers have had their fill, the peloton will be spat out onto wide, open roads. If the wind is strong enough, will any directeurs sportifs send their men to the front to split the peloton? If any general classification men lost time on Mont Ventoux, might they now seek revenge?
The next day is no easier. Stage 13 connects two ancient Roman towns, Nîmes and Carcassonne. At 220 kilometers, it’s a long stage that looks perfect for a large breakaway group to stay away till the finish. Apathy in the peloton could make it one of those classic transitional stages: hot, weary and slow. The kind of stage that almost becomes an exercise in meditative mindfulness for the television viewer. And yet…if a fresh northerly wind blows, it will cut across the route. Two days of echelons? That would just be too much fun!
If we think of Provence as a place of unbridled sunshine, vibrant lavender fields and superlative wines, we should remember that these qualities are due in no small part to the wind. Indeed, perhaps more than any other part of France, Provence is shaped by the wind. According to local legend there are 32 provençal winds, each coming from a different point on the compass. They include the Marin, the Vent-Blanc, the Sirocco, the Chili…and many other wonderful names.
By far the most famous is the Mistral. The Master. This famously strong and cold wind comes from the north, accelerating down the Rhône Valley before crossing the plains of Languedoc and Provence on its way to menace sailors on the Mediterranean. Most common in winter and spring, the Mistral is strongest in the transition between these two seasons, often recording speeds of over 60 kph. July is not Mistral season but one can never rule out a midsummer blast from the north.
The Mistral frequently sustains itself for several days, sometimes for as long as a week. Local legends tell of people suffering headaches and bad temper, even being driven mad, by the incessant wind. Peasant cottages are traditionally built facing south, with their backs to the Mistral. Over time, trees become bent. Loose roof tiles are whipped away. Anything not firmly secured can be stolen by the Mistral. The temperature plummets. Yet the communities living in the path of this phenomenon have come to accept it. That is because it plays a central role in defining what makes Provence such a special place.
While other parts of France languish under gloomy skies and storms, the Mistral clears the air. It blows hard but leaves behind clear air and blue sky. Dust and pollution are also pushed away. That famously vivid-blue Provence sky and the crystalline views over the surrounding landscape have a great deal to do with the Mistral. And because it is a dry wind, it eliminates moisture on vegetation. The wines of Languedoc, Provence and the Rhône Valley owe a lot to the Mistral; it gives them bright sunny days perfect for growing grapes and prevents damaging mildew growing on the vines.
According to folklore, the people of Provence once came to accept their troublesome friend by banishing it, then suffering the consequences. So tired were they of the Mistral’s damage being wreaked upon their villages that a delegation of strong young men was sent north to quell it. They knew that the wind originated in an archway of one particular rock in the marsh of Vivarais. So, the men traveled there with a huge wooden door to nail across the archway while the Mistral was sleeping. Back in Provence that winter was calm and restful. But as spring turned to summer their triumph turned to despair. The heat was unbearable. The air was stagnant and humid. Grapes rotted on the vine. People became sick and unhappy. After much discussion between the village mayors of Provence, it was decided that things were better before, with the Mistral. They now understood its benefits. So the same delegation of young men was sent north to open the door and release the wind. The Mistral, humbled by his entrapment, promised to blow more softly upon these communities, though he doesn’t always keep his end of the bargain.
In his book “Vélo,” Paul Fournel writes, “There’s something of the sailor in the cyclist. It’s thanks to this basic training that you learn to shelter yourself better, to take better advantage of the strength of others. When the wind blows from the side, or from an angle, the riders fan out over the full width of the road to make a rampart of their companions. These fans are called bordures, and if you’re not in the right one, jumping from one to another is practically impossible.”
In last year’s Tour de France stage 7 was supposed to be one for the sprinters. A straightforward race without any significant obstacles. After a hectic opening week, the peloton was looking forward to a relatively easy day. The route was to take them from Millau to Lavaur, in the Tarn, running southwest, then due west.
Much of the stage went to script. Thomas De Gendt attacked alone with 95 kilometers to go. But his bid for glory was doomed. When the race changed direction at Castres with 35 kilometers remaining, with the wind blowing hard across the course, the INEOS Grenadiers went to the front and split the peloton into bordures (or “echelons” as the term has been anglicized). Eventual Tour winner Pogačar, along with Bauke Mollema and Richie Porte were among the GC hopefuls caught behind. Peter Sagan was the only sprinter left in the front group and looked to be favored to win the stage, but at the finish in Lavaur it was Wout Van Aert who took his second stage of the week.
On the road to Lavaur, the work done by the INEOS riders was made redundant when their Richard Carapaz suffered a mechanical and dropped back to the second group. On windy stages the calculation between risk and reward is complicated. And stages like these build the narrative of the whole three-week Tour—to lose time on a seemingly innocuous stage is tremendously frustrating for a rider on good form. It stirs up aggression. Revenge becomes a motive. Would Pogačar have been as aggressive in the Pyrénées if he had not lost time on the road to Lavaur?
So, if you happen to be in Provence this July how might you stay one step ahead of the Master? Well, several hours before the Mistral begins to gust, the sky gives hints of its impending arrival. It glows red at sunset. Thin golden clouds become gray. The quicker they turn gray, the stronger the wind will blow.
Look to the sky. Or look at weather.com. That works too.