SAINT-LARY-SOULAN, France – A new start and a royal finish. After two grueling days in the mountains, exhausted Tour de France riders will discover a new place on the race map in the small town of Trie-sur-Baise, which for centuries was one of the biggest pork markets in the south and still hosts a pig's fair every August.
Racing through the vineyards of Madiran, the peloton will head toward more familiar territory, with the finish of Stage 18 set in the city of Pau, the birthplace of 16th-century king Henri IV. Pau will be visited for the 70th time this year after hosting the race for the first time in 1930.
Here's a gastronomic, sporting and cultural glance at the route for Stage 18 on Thursday:
BAGUETTE AND BUTTER: It's time to relax a bit for the main contenders after two tough days in the Pyrenees. A 171-kilometer, mainly flat, Stage 18 is made for sprinters ahead of a final day in high altitude. The likes of Sean Kelly, Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen have triumphed in Pau in the past and another top sprinter, Marcel Kittel, tasted victory there last year.
PLAT DU JOUR: The poule au pot. This traditional French dinner was one of Henri IV's favorite meals. Literally "hen in a pot," it's a whole hen stuffed with minced pork and veal, breadcrumbs and an egg. It should be cooked in boiling water with carrots, turnips, rutabagas, celery and onions. Although the king wanted every French family in his kingdom to be able to afford eating a poule au pot every Sunday, it does not come cheap anymore in restaurants.
VIN DU JOUR: Madiran reds, from a region comprising 37 villages north of Pau, are made with the rare, blue-black tannat grapes. Their name derives from the word for "tanned" in Occitan, a language spoken in the south of France. To get the Madiran label, at least half of the grapes that go into the wine must be of the tannat variety.
CHEESE: A pressed cheese produced with raw and whole milk, the Tomme des Pyrenees is on every good table in the mountains. In the picturesque town of Mont, above Loudenvielle, the local Fromagerie du Diable, which translates as the Devil's cheese factory, offers a large variety, including a lightly salty one made from cow and ewes' milk.
DIGESTIVE : Made in the nearby Basque Country, the Patxaran is a refreshing liquor dating from the Middle Age made from blackthorn or sloe bush berries. Locals like it homemade and serve it cold.
CULTURE: Stage 18 will go through Marciac, which hosts one of the most famous jazz festivals in Europe. The town is bursting with life in the summer, welcoming thousands of visitors over three weeks every year. Created in 1978, the festival has seen the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson perform as well as other highly-respected musicians.
STAT OF THE DAY: 3. The number of stage victories by Colombian riders after Nairo Quintana won Stage 17 on Wednesday, making the South American nation the most successful so far. Sprinter Fernando Gaviria also claimed two stage wins earlier in the race in his first Tour.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "We just got to look after (Geraint Thomas) now. I've won the last three Grand Tours and G has ridden an absolutely faultless race this year, so he fully deserves to be in the yellow jersey, and fingers crossed he finishes it off and gets the job done in Paris." — Chris Froome, about his teammate and the race leader, after the four-time Tour champion lost more ground on Stage 17.
NEXT ORDER: Stage 19 from Lourdes to Laruns will be the theatre of the final battle in high altitude in a dramatic setting featuring mythical Pyrenees passes including the Aspin, the Tourmalet, the Soulor and Aubisque.
Associated Press writers Andrew Dampf and Ciaran Fahey contributed.
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