TASTE OF THE TOUR: Chestnuts and Rhone Valley delights
LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (AP) After 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) of racing, the Tour de France has saved some of its best gastronomic and cultural treats for last. Oh, and let's not forget the race: Deliciously poised for the final week, with the top four riders separated by less than 30 seconds.
From the start in Le Puy-en-Velay, where tasty green lentils are king, Stage 16 on Tuesday zips into chestnut country, in the Ardeche region, and finishes just east of the River Rhone, in a wine-producing area that sources some of France's most drinkable reds.
Here's a sporting, gastronomic and cultural guide to the 165-kilometer (102-mile) trek to Romans-sur-Isere that could come as a bit of a shock to riders' systems after their hard-earned rest day in Le Puy on Monday.
BAGUETTE AND BUTTER: With a 4.5-kilometer (2.5-mile) climb at the outset and other bumps to negotiate before the plunge down into the Rhone Valley, Stage 16 will quickly make riders forget, perhaps even regret, their day of taking it easy. Some riders always find the post-rest day a challenge. How tough will depend on whether the peloton is in the mood for hard racing before Wednesday's ascent into the Alps. Race leader Chris Froome's Team Sky will likely be happy to let riders low down in the overall standings, who aren't a threat to his yellow jersey, break away in a hunt for the stage victory. But the flat final section will appeal to sprinters, and their teams will work to position them for what will likely be a mad dash at the end for the line.
PLAT DU JOUR: Plump, nut-flavored Ardeche chestnuts are used both as a staple, say to replace potatoes, and in desserts, and chestnut flour is baked as bread. Roasted or boiled in milk, chestnuts are also traditionally served as one of the accompaniments to a Christmas turkey or other bird. Sweet chestnut paste, manufactured industrially and by many smaller artisans, is one of life's simple pleasures, so good it can be eaten alone or dolloped into yoghurt to transform it into a treat. Also widely used in cake-making and ice cream. Chestnut liqueur is good, too.
HISTORY: The Ardeche chestnut industry traces its history to the 13th century. The plantations are a marvel unto themselves, with ancient dry-stone walls built long ago to form terraces for the trees with their distinctive broad leaves. At its height in the 1860s, the industry was producing 40,000 tons of chestnuts annually. But tastes changed and many plantations were abandoned and allowed to grow wild as farming families moved to towns. The Ardeche remains the largest chestnut-farming region, with its annual production of 5,000 tons accounting for half of the French total.
VIN DU JOUR: Unlike their predecessors, modern Tour riders don't drink and race at the same time. They might want to rethink that clean-living philosophy as they speed through the Rhone Valley. Its famed reds include Crozes-Hermitage, the largest appellation in northern Rhone. Grapes from the syrah variety cultivated on rich soils produce this light wine with a delicate nose and subtle tannins.
FROMAGE: The feed zone of Stage 16, where riders pick up bags of energy bars and other race fuel, is in the Ardeche village of Saint-Felicien. The creamy cow's milk cheese of the same name comes not from there but from further east, largely produced in the Rhone and Isere regions. Instead, Saint-Felicien's local cheese - the "caille doux" - is made from goat's milk.
NEXT ORDER: Stage 17 on Wednesday from La Mure to Serre Chevalier in the Alps is a monster, with four climbs - two of them to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in altitude. They include the ascent to the Col du Galibier, one of the Tour's most fearsome and famed climbs.