The Lacets de Montvernier during stage 18 of the 2015 Tour of France.

Hors Course stage 11: High mountain passes and unbeatable cheese

The Tour de France passes its highest point on stage 11 (for the first time), but more importantly … cheese!

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

We are racing in the Savoie region of France. The two departments with the names Savoie and Haut-Savoie tell us the story of a very old kingdom that started here in the Alps about a thousand years ago and eventually become the rulers of nearly all of Italy.

The founder of the House of Savoy was Humbert the First the Whitehanded. Whitehanded would have meant that he was very generous, and not necessarily the color of his hands. He owned the lands in the Alps we still know as Savoie and the lands south of Lake Geneva. Gradually his successors, many of them named Amadeus, expanded the lands. Amadeus the 8th secured Piemonte, in Italy, and from there on 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 didn’t help his popularity.

The Alps are also synonymous to cheese and hearty foods, especially in the winter time. Reblochon is one of my favorite cheeses and often used in Tartiflette. I know, I told this story last year as well but it’s such a good one and I will share it again!

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

Reblochon derives from the word “reblocher” which when literally translated means “to pinch a cow’s udder again”. This refers to the practice of holding back some of the milk from the first milking. During the 14th century, the landowners would tax the mountain farmers according to the amount of milk their herds produced. The farmers would therefore not fully milk the cows until after the landowner had measured the yield. The milk that remains is much richer, and was traditionally used by the dairymaids to make their own cheese.

In the 16th century the cheese also became known as “fromage de dévotion” (devotional cheese) because it was offered to the Carthusian monks of the Thônes Valley by the farmers, in return for having their homesteads blessed.

The Reblochon cheese is made with raw cow’s milk which made export to countries like the USA impossible until 2004 because of the laws in place until then. Reblochon is one of the key ingredients of winter sports’ favorite dish tartiflette: potatoes, cheese, onion, garlic, bacon and double cream. There are one trillion calories in it and you can sustain yourself at least a week on one portion.  

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

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

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

A carriage road was opened in 1879 and the tunnel in 1891. The first visit of the Tour de France took place on July 10, 1911. There were only three riders who did not walk up the climb according to author Les Woodland in his 2003 book The Yellow Jersey.

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

On the top is a monument dedicated to Tour de France founder Henri Desgrange. Every year the rider who arrives at the highest point of the race first wins the Souvenir Henri Desgrange which is a premium of 5,000 euros. Last year this was Nairo Quintana on the Port d’Envalira in Andorra.

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