Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes documents the story of the author’s 200km hike through the Massif Central in 1878, with a stubborn and recalcitrant travelling companion – the eponymous donkey. The landscape, Stevenson found, was “cold, naked and ignoble, scant of wood, scant of heather, scant of life”.
The Tour de France did not venture into the Massif Central until 1950, and not properly until a year later, with a stage finish in Clermont-Ferrand. It all reinforces the impression that this is one of France’s more remote regions – sparsely populated, inhospitable and the home of several hundred varieties of pungent cheese. It’s hard terrain for cycling, though today’s peloton is probably a little more biddable than Stevenson’s donkey, driven south by the author some 90km to the east of today’s stage finish at Le Lioran.
They might change their mind once they’ve seen what awaits them. The Tour has not been above 1,500m altitude this early in the race since 1979, which was probably the toughest-ever opening to the race, with three Pyrenean stages in the first four days.
There’s a quartet of hard climbs at the end of the stage, including the second-category Pas de Peyrol. It’s the highest road pass in the Massif Central, sitting just below the scenic volcanic pyramid of the Puy Mary, and reportedly one of the wettest places in France.
The finale to the stage is hard enough to ensure that the GC riders are at least drawn out, although the last climb of the day, the third-category Col de Font de Cère, is only 3.3km long and peters out 2km from the line. However, this is a GC day, whether the GC riders like it or not.
Robert Millar: A day of riding through treacle. I always used to say the best thing about Limoges was leaving but I was usually going north, to safety and civilisation. There’s none of that to be found heading south as it gets hotter, more humid and harder to sustain momentum. For the last hour you’d better hope you’re on a good day as it’s relentless up and down. It’s a stage that’s very difficult to control and perfect for the kind of ambush that Contador loves.