As our recent and surprisingly punishing paddle around a boating lake on a pedalo proved, the biomechanics of cycling the Tour de France are not to be sniffed at. While we do don a little lycra with the weekend Wiggins set, and have even enjoyed some of the Tour rides while on location as drinks writers, we’re confident it’s safer to enjoy the year’s biggest sporting event off the saddle with a drink in hand.
Fittingly though, alcohol was the original performance enhancing substance in this epic race, so in a way, we’re at least embracing the history of Le Tour. While we can attest that a couple of pints can’t unlock race potential in the way something like EPO is reported to, in the inaugural race it was part of the rider’s diet.
In 1903 the chimney sweep Maurice Garin won after plenty of sustenance provided by local bars, and since water was only permitted in designated stops, riders were known to rehydrate with steins of beer.
Times may have changed with the modern Tour but don’t assume the cyclist has turned his back entirely on drink. Post-race interviews with winners often reference a deserved drink in the pub. Meanwhile, as is tradition, Champagne will still be served on the final stage of the race as the rider in the Yellow Jersey rides into Paris relatively sure they cannot be dislodged from the winning saddle.
So in many ways, by drinking as we watch, we’ll be returning to the roots of this race, and with such an abundance of exceptional alcohol on offer in France, it’s appropriate to pair stages with regional specialities. Here then are a few suggestions on what enjoy while the professionals abstain for the next three weeks.
Stages 1, 2, 3
The Grand Départ and these early stages are all about Nice and the drinks of the Cote D’Azur and Provence region. After stage one takes in the steady Moyens to Nice, stage two will take a toll as riders climb Col de Colmaine and Col de Turini. Meanwhile stage three is Nice to Sisteron and in the Route de Napoleon, taken by Napoléon in 1815 on his return from Elba as he started the 100 days that ended at Waterloo. All sounds like thirsty work, so we’ll start with a crisp, refreshing Provence Rosé, a staple for the Cote d’Azur. We’ve opted for Chateau la Mascaronne (£15.95, Berry Bros & Rudd), an organic rosé, from Berry Bros and Tom Bove, who owned Miraval before Brangelina bought it. Winemaker Laurence Berlemont is lauded for his craft with white and rosés, and this Provençal pink blends Grenache, Cinsault and Rolle.
But as a particular regional favourite we also point to Picon Amer (£18.95, Whisky Exchange), made by blending one distillate with dried orange peel flavour and another with gentian roots and quinquina, sugar and caramel. Picon Biere is famed for its serve with pilsner along the coast, but sip the bitter sweet black label neat before a meal to whet an appetite, which, conveniently, these first three stages are sure to do.
Stages 4, 5 & 6
Stage four, Sisterone to Orcieres Merlette sees riders climb up to a finish in a ski resort, and interestingly the official Tour guide suggested it ‘isn’t very difficult’. It’s uphill and is 160km long, so we’d argue ‘isn’t very easy’ either.
Stage five is Gap to Privas and one for the sprinter sandwiched between Stage six and Le Teil to Mont Aigoual, which, as the ‘Mont’ suggests, will be hard graft climbing. As they sweat, we’ll be sipping three wines from Sainsbury, who have a splendid selection to pair with our route this year.
For the climbers, the Ventoux wines are found in the southeast of the Rhône, and Sainsbury’s Côtes Du Ventoux, Taste the Difference (£10) is fine example. The Grenache and Syrah is full and fruity, as deep as the riders will need to go on the incline and spicey as the lycra might by the end. If you prefer the sprint section opt for the Cru Des Côtes Du Rhône Vinsobres
(£8.50, which is no less rich, but does have a proper late flourish of fruit. And for those who frankly just want smashing red, then this section of rides skirts the Chateauneuf du Pape region, a mere 40 mins drive from Le Teil, so go for Sainsbury’s big attack in the Châteauneuf Du Pape, Taste the Difference (£18).
Stage 7, 8, 9
Stage seven starts in the Massif Central but the route then moves to the Pyrenees, with stage eight Cazeres-sur-Garonne to Loudenvielle including a super-category climb to Port de Balès before Stage nine travels from Pau to Laruns. As a result, even though it’s a little further north, we devote this section of the race to the midi-Pyrenees and Armagnac. Darroze seems like a wise choice, a one hour drive from Pau, and an exceptional house with an extraordinary range. Selecting eau-de-vies from a wide range of distillers, and only the best, the family ages carefully and provides a stunning array of aged expressions.
This stage will travel from Ile d’Oleron to Ile de Re, but is so close to Cognac we need to be pouring quality vintage spirit while we watch this one. With the British contingent of Geraint Thomas, Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome all missing out, we’ll recognise their past exploits with some Thomas Hine Cognac.
Thomas Hine travelled to Cognac in the 18th century from Dorset and the prestigious house puts an emphasis on smaller scale but high standard spirit. Plenty of individual expressions, together making up a spectacular team of choices, but the Hine Antique XO Premier Cru is worthy of the Yellow Jersey here. (£275, Whisky Exchange)
If we were riding the tour, this might be our favourite day, assuming we’re not forced to self isolate in a budget hotel. This year it takes place in La Charente-Maritime, a short drive to Bordeaux vineyards, but since it’s next to Il de Re, the finish of stage 10, we recommend the regional special Camus Île de Ré Fine Island Cognac (£44.95, Whisky Exchange) distilled and matured on the island it’s a delicious, if curious drop, rich and sweet but with a subtle savoury character thanks to the proximity of the sea.
Stage 11, 12, 13 & 14
The race moves from West to East, across the middle of France, with stage 11 running from Chatelaillon Plage to Poitier; Stage 12 is the longest at more than 200km between Chauvigny and Sarran; stage 13 presenting Chatel Guyon to Puy Mary Cantal potentially the toughest with a 4400m vertical gain; and Stage 14 Clermont-Ferrand to Lyon, a short respite before yet more mountains.
A lot of bike riding, and given the choice, we’d possibly swap water bidon for booze and opt for a few days with our feet up in Lyon, a city devoted to food and drink. The wine regions of the Northern Cote-De-Rhone reach up to the south of Lyon, but it’s Beaujolais you should focus on here. Juicy reds they really are proper beau and the region is only 30km away, a bike ride we could actually undertake. The Whisky Exchange, famed for an unrivalled spirits selection, also stocks some wonderful wine, and the Beaujolais Village Domaine Andre Colonge 2018, from a wine-making family that has roots in the region since the late 18th century. This is a perfect example of the Beaujolais wine, fresh and crisp but still full of juicy fruit balancing up tannins with a rich strawberry profile. A red to have as a faithful domestique during dinner. (£11.95, Whisky Exchange)
Stage 15, 16, 17
Stage 15 takes us out of Lyon to Grand Colombier, with Stage 16 starting in La tour du Pin and finishing in Villard de Lans. But for us, this is all about Stage 17 Grenoble to Meribel Col de la Loze, which takes us through Chartreuse. The native Verte Chartreuse (£37.95, Whisky Exchange) is a true gem of the French repertoire, still produced by Carthusian Monks who started making it in 1605 and retain the same recipe with a mindblowing 130 botanicals. Punchy as it is, there’s still a wild range of flavours, fresh mints, citrus and vegetal notes all coming through. While these stages won’t be about the likes of Peter Sagan and the sprinter’s Green Jersey, the region belongs to the green of this liqueur.
Of the two here, Stage 18 is the most notable, the Meribel La Roche-sur-Foron represents another brutal alpine route, so the race will be compelling. But more importantly it’s close to Chambery, which is excellent vermouth country. Dolin is the traditional producer here and the dry varietal (14.95, Whisky Exchange) has been made in the Alps since 1821, awarded the only Appellation d’Origine for vermouth in 1932 and is an necessary addition to the drinks cabinet if you’re a martini drinker.
Stage 20, 21
Stage 20 is a time trial from Lure to La Planche des Belles Filles and passes through St Germain, and since St Germain (26.75, Whisky Exhange) is a delicious liqueur, we recommend this. The name is actually related to the Paris region, and it’s perfect with a simple mixer, great for quenching the thirst of anyone who has watched this much exhausting athletic output.
Finally, Stage 21 is all about Paris, starting in Mantes la Jolie and finishing famously on the Champs Elysees. The rider in yellow will be enjoying Champagne on the bike as he starts the route, finally speaking our language. The Champagne sponsor is Castelnau and the Reserve Brut is a surprise package (£29.50, Wine Society). less familiar on these shores but a worthy fresh but toasty fizz to raise in the race’s honour.
The Thinking Drinkers are award-winning drinks writer and will be tasting these drinks and more during the Tour de France series on their podcast Around the World in 80 Drinks, available here.