LARUNS, France – The Tour de France's penultimate stage is a time trial in the Basque Country, where pan-seared squid with Espelette peppers washed down with deep red wines contribute to the locals' bonhomie.
Artisan chocolates, long a specialty of the area, also keep spirits high in this region of green mountains shrouded in mist or cloud, where small agricultural villages dot the landscape.
Agriculture provides most of the employment in the area, followed by tourism, as visitors flock to a region distinct from the rest of France.
The picturesque foothills of the Pyrenees will keep the riders alert and wary of mishaps with one stage remaining in the three-week Tour.
The steep ascent of Col de Pinodieta provides a final challenge three kilometers from the finish in Espelette, but it seems nothing will stop Geraint Thomas claiming his first win on Sunday.
Here's a gastronomic, sporting and cultural glance at the route for Stage 20:
BAGUETTE AND BUTTER: The 31-kilometer stage from Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle to Espelette is an individual time trial. Yellow jersey holder Thomas's comfortable lead of 2 minutes and 5 seconds should be enough to stay clear of time trial world champion Tom Dumoulin ahead of the mostly ceremonial finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday.
PLAT DU JOUR: Pan-seared squid with Espelette peppers, which traces its origins through Mexico to the south of Bolivia and Brazil. It was first planted in Espelette around 1650, when it thrived in the local climate. It gives squid, a delicacy all across the Basque region, a fiery kick. Often served with small roasted potatoes.
CULTURE: The Basque language is something of an anomaly for linguists as it is unrelated to any other. Spoken across the western Pyrenees in France and Spain, it is believed to pre-date the arrival of speakers of Indo-European languages. Basque enjoys more protection in Spain than France, where there are fewer speakers and it is not considered an official language.
VIN DU JOUR: Irouleguy. Named after the village of Irouleguy, they are the only Basque wines to have the AOC appellation in France. Small compared to other wine-making regions, Irouleguy produces mostly red wines on the steep slopes of its mountainsides. Domaine Ilarria is a deep red with a bouquet of wild fruits and spices.
HISTORY: It has been 12 years since the Tour visited the Basque Country. That stage started in Combo-les-Bains near Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle and finished in Pau, where French rider Cyril Dessel took the yellow jersey. Both Saint-Pee and Espelette are hosting the event for the first time this year.
The Basque Country had an association with cycling through the Euskadi team from 2005 to 2014. It maintained a Basque-only policy to develop local cyclists.
STAT OF THE DAY: 92.2 - Former ski jumper Primoz Roglic's top speed in kilometers per hour (57.3 mph) as he won Friday's stage in Laruns to move third in the general classification ahead of the final two legs.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "It's going to be a tough day tomorrow. I'm really knackered." — Geraint Thomas.
DESSERT: Chocolate. Basque chocolates are a specialty since they were first made in the region around Bayonne more than 400 years ago. Espelette peppers often lend their taste. Chocolaterie Antton in Espelette is a popular tourist attraction for its factory tours.
NEXT ORDER: The finish line in Paris. Sunday's stage, the last after three weeks of racing, will see the riders finish with a sprint on the Champs-Elysees after a straightforward 116K trek from Houilles.
Associated Press writers Samuel Petrequin and Andrew Dampf contributed.
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