Hors Course stage 11: High mountain passes and unbeatable cheese

As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been takes us off the race route for local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.

We race in Savoy in France. The two departments named Savoie and Haute-Savoie tell us the story of a very ancient kingdom that began here in the Alps about a thousand years ago and ended up dominating almost all of Italy.

The founder of the House of Savoy was Humbert 1st the Whitehand. Whitehanded would have meant he was very generous, and not necessarily the color of his hands. He owned the lands in the Alps that we still know as Savoy and the lands south of Lake Geneva. Gradually, his successors, many of whom called themselves Amadeus, expanded the lands. Amadeus VIII secured Piedmont, Italy, and from there the family acquired more and more of Italy through marriages, strategic alliances, and old-fashioned warfare.

In 1861 the Savoys became the royal family of Italy, but in 1946 Italy voted to become a republic. The fact that King Victor Emmanuele worked with dictator Benito Mussolini from 1922 to 1943 did not help his popularity.

The Alps are also synonymous with cheese and hearty dishes, especially in winter. Reblochon is one of my favorite cheeses and often used in tartiflette. I know, I also told this story last year but it is so good and I will share it again!

A farmer and his Abondance cattle in the mountain pasture surrounding his farm in the French Alps. He milks the cows twice a day, beginning the process of making Reblochon from their farm.

Reblochon derives from the word “reblocher” which literally means “pinching a cow’s udder again”. This is the practice of withholding some of the milk from the first milking. In the 14th century, landowners taxed mountain farmers based on the amount of milk produced by their herds. Farmers therefore did not fully milk the cows until the landowner had measured the yield. The milk that remains is much richer and was traditionally used by milkmaids to make their own cheese.

In the 16th century, the cheese also took the name of “devotional cheese” because it was offered to the Carthusian monks of the Thônes valley by the farmers, in exchange for the blessing of their land.

Reblochon is made with raw cow’s milk, which made it impossible to export to countries like the USA until 2004 because of the laws in force until then. Reblochon is one of the key ingredients in tartiflette, the favorite dish of winter sports enthusiasts: potatoes, cheese, onion, garlic, bacon bits and fresh cream. It contains a trillion calories and you can sustain yourself for at least a week on one serving.

I would strongly advise runners not to eat it before today’s stage which includes the incredible Lacets de Montvernier (amazing drone footage with extremely sad music here) and the Col du Galibier. At 2,642 meters, it is the fifth highest road pass in the French Alps after Col de l’Iseran (2,770 m), Col Agnel (2,744 m), Col de la Bonette (2,715 m) and the Col de Restefond (2,680 m). This is the highlight of this year’s Tour de France.

The yellow jersey group approach the summit of the Col du Galibier during stage 17 of the 2017 Tour de France. A pre-Grand Tour edition of Primož Roglič won solo on the day as Chris Froome held on in the lead of the race.

The Galibier was probably used for a long time in prehistoric times as a crossing point between two large Alpine valleys, then later for the passage of armies and travellers.

A motorable road was opened in 1879 and the tunnel in 1891. The first Tour de France visit was on July 10, 1911. There were only three riders who did not climb the climb according to author Les Woodland in his 2003 book Le Maillot Jaune.

Since then, the Col has been the starting point for the most prestigious stages of the Tour and has seen the biggest names leave their mark. Riders who made it to the top first include Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Federico Bahamontes, Joop Zoetemelk, Luis Ocaña, Marco Pantani, Andy Schleck, Primož Roglič and last in 2019 Nairo Quintana.

At the top is a monument dedicated to the founder of the Tour de France Henri Desgrange. Each year, the runner who arrives first at the highest point of the race wins the Souvenir Henri Desgrange which is a bonus of 5,000 euros. Last year it was Nairo Quintana at Port d’Envalira in Andorra.

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