Of Brittany, Booze, Brits and Bruyneel

Weekend Tour de France coverage? Well, my friends, that’s what the big sites get paid for, and here at the Service Course, we’re a non-profit. Not in the “helping people with diseases” or “relentlessly lobbying Congress” or “laundering money” senses of non-profit, but non-profit in the sense that we’re actually not making any money. So until major cycling brands, outdoor “lifestyle” companies, and maybe state-run oil monopolies start mailing us envelopes padded with crisp, clean Euros, we’ll probably keep taking the weekends off.

But our stringent no-weekends policy leaves us a bit behind today, as we’ve skipped right over the first two stages of the Tour de France, which along with today’s Stage 3 ran through the cycling hotbed of Brittany. (By “hotbed” we mean that Bernard Hinault is from there, which is really all you need to qualify for the descriptor. If you don't know who he is, suffice to say he's cycling's Chuck Norris.) Rather than talking about Alejandro Valverde’s (Caisse D’Epargne) win in the boxing match that was the Stage 1 finale, or why Quick.Step, of all teams, doesn’t know what wind and hills can do to your leadout, we’re going a different direction.

Just before the Independence Day holiday, the Unholy Rouleur (friend of the Service Course, prolific commenter, and prized wheel in a paceline) contacted us to suggest that we make a joint effort to bring our gentle readers a bit of relevant French culture during this annual three week romp. Since we’re both crap pétanque players, and we’re not much on impressionist painting, we decided to concentrate on food and booze, which both of us encounter far more often.

So we’re getting a late start, but taking a page from the Tour riders of old and Jan Ullrich, we’re going to ride ourselves into shape as the race goes on in hopes of a strong second place finish on the Champs. While the Rouleur looks into the gastronomic delicacies native to or popular in the locales each stage passes through, I’ll be doing the same for the liquid end of the spectrum, starting with Brittany.

I should start by saying that I don’t believe I’ve ever been to Brittany, though there was a family vacation over there when I was in high school that I’m still a little foggy on, so maybe I have. Anyway, my uninformed impression of France’s westernmost province, just across the English Channel from the U.K., is that it’s full of hearty, slightly cranky people who wear wool sweaters year round, and that it always feels kind of like fall there. And in that way, it’s a lot like upstate New York, with which I’m far more familiar. What else do these two kindred regions have in common you ask? Apples. Shitloads of apples.

With such an abundance of the forbidden fruit itself, it follows that the typical fermented drink of the Breton is apple cider, which sources tell us is available in a number of permutations – sparkling, still, sweet, or dry, and with levels of alcohol ranging from a modest 3% (I believe in France this is called “baby food”) on up to skull-cracking levels. It’s apparently served cold in a distinctive earthenware bowl, which should make absolute authenticity in serve-ware even more difficult than finding a correctly branded Belgian beer glass. Maybe your kid can make you one in art class, or there’s always French Ebay.

There are certainly a number of different brands of Breton cider, including some that are apparently available in Canada, because when it comes to French stuff, those guys have connections. I can’t for the life of me tell if any are available here in the United States though, so if you’re watching TiVo-ed coverage of today’s stage this evening, you might have to settle for a bottle of Woodchuck and call it good, though it may taste more like you’re trying to get an American high school girl drunk than watching a French bike race.

Of course, abundance breeds ingenuity, and like Americans with corn, the Bretons will apparently try to do damn near anything with their cider, like using it for chain lube, cooking chicken in it, or making it into powerful brandies (though it should be noted that the most famous apple brandy, Calvados, is usually identified with the Normandy region south of Brittany, also big cider country). We don’t know if you can do any of that with Woodchuck, though, so if you have tips on where to score some genuine, apple-based fermented Breton products in the United States, give us a shout. At least we can be prepared for next year, and if Tom Danielson and the cycling press have taught us anything, it’s that it’s never too early to start preparing for next year’s Tour.

The Versus Report

Just a quick timing note: six minutes. That’s how long the trusty TiVo counter tells me it took for the Versus commentary team (via Paul Sherwen) to bring up the Astana exclusion during the Stage 1 pre-race show. (Looking at prior postings, it seems like we can officially dub the six minute mark of the Versus broadcasts “Astana Time.”) I shouldn’t complain too much though – unlike their on-air griping about it during the spring classics, that dead horse now has at least some relevance to the race at hand. It is funny though, given all of Versus’ carefully crafted “Take Back the Tour” branding of this year’s race, that the Astana situation seems to be one instance where the commentary team blows right past the “new cycling” party line to support several well-entrenched members of the old system. The other instance is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on Erik Zabel, who is featured on the "Take Back the Tour" rewind-of-shame advertisement, but spoken of adoringly by the coverage team.

I guess Bruyneel and co. paid the Versus bills for long enough to earn some loyalty, moreso than Landis and Ullrich, anyway. But now the tables have turned, and Versus is giving Bruyneel a little payback, in the literal sense – apparently, he’ll be providing some sort of commentary on their coverage over the last couple weeks of the Tour. Sherwen, at least, is very excited. And I agree, it should be great – we’ve been missing those “with Lance we blah, blah…” and “like Lance, Contador is blah, blah, blah” comments for the past year, and it will be great to hear them vigorously applied to a race that none of those people are involved in. Seriously, if this special guest star gig is going to work out, he’s going to have to come up with some new material.

You know what else the Versus crowd is loudly and repeatedly excited about? TWO AMERICAN TEAMS! Indeed, according to everyone’s license and registration, that’s certainly the case, with both Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia maintaining a reliable forwarding address in the United States. Sure, there are only four American riders among those two American teams, and indeed in the whole Tour, but who’s counting? Yay, America! Yes indeed, the U.S. nationalism, coming as it does from a couple of royal subjects with heavy ties to Africa, can be a bit forced, and it’s laid on way too thick, but I’m going to go out on a limb and not be bothered by it.

Cyclists, who along with their oppressed spouses and captive children, make up most of Versus’ Tour viewing audience these days, tend to be a studiously iconoclastic bunch – typically not a good target for the “root for the home team!” mentality that Versus adopted during the Armstrong era and continues to push (and which I’m sure is straight out of the NBC Olympic coverage playbook). But it also feels like sometimes, we as cyclists doth protest too much. It’s only a bike race, not a trade embargo or a war, and if you want to root for a team because they’re registered here, or because they ride a bike you have or like, or because you like their kit’s combination of blue and white better than every other team’s combination of blue and white, I say have at it. It doesn’t make you uncultured or a redneck – those suave but passionate Italians we cyclists admire so much are busy doing the same damn thing. So maybe it’s just the lingering Fourth of July beers talking, but there are worse things in the world than flying the flag over a bike race.

Do I think it’s necessary to interview Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) after every stage? No, probably not, but he’s a good rider, and pretty well spoken, so what’s the harm? And Will Frischkorn (Garmin-Chipotle) went from winning the Univest Grand Prix in Pennsylvania last year to riding the Tour de France this year, and that’s not too shabby a transition to make, so I don’t mind hearing from him either. After all, the media always needs an angle, and no matter how oblique it is, you’ll sure notice it’s absence if they stop trying to find it. That said, if they could stop constantly referencing Lance Armstrong every time George Hincapie (Columbia) appears on screen, I’d be much obliged. Not because I’m unpatriotic or don’t like Hincapie, but because it just gets really, really old, and after 14 Tours, George deserves to have his name mentioned in a sentence of its very own.