Picking through the bean stew that is a specialty of the French southwest, the Tour's playground this week, is a bit like a treasure hunt. You're never quite sure what the next fork-full will turn up.
Wow, there's a duck gizzard! Is that a fresh girolle mushroom? Mmm, the roasted pork rinds and chunks of sausage marry so well with the soft white beans. And, oh, admire how the meat falls effortlessly off the bone of that slow-cooked duck thigh resting atop the thick stew like a crown.
Like cassoulet, the Tour is getting mouth-watering, too. Stage 12 on Thursday took the peloton into the Pyrenees mountains, where the complexion of the race is likely to change in coming days and provide a far clearer indication of who the podium finishers might be in Paris on July 28.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas' goal in the time trial on Friday, a discipline the former track cyclist excels in, will be to put significant time between him and other title contenders who aren't so quick in the race against the clock.
The 27.2-kilometer (16.9-mile) loop south of Pau, a city blessed with Pyrenean panoramas and its own specialty meat and vegetable stew, garbure, is long enough for Thomas to put some serious hurt on rivals who are better in the mountains than they are on time-trial bikes with aerodynamic wheels and in slick skinsuits.
But the very next day, climbers will get their biggest opportunity so far to try to make Thomas crack going uphill. Saturday's Stage 14 scales the Tourmalet, a legendary climb and the first of seven at this Tour to above 2,000 meters, (6,500 feet), where the thinning air at altitude will further stress the riders' already tired bodies.
Now, back to beans. Chef Georges Bermond likes to make cassoulet when he receives at home, because once he's put the stewpot on the table, for his guests to tuck in, he can join the fun rather than be stuck in the kitchen. He calls it "a dish of conviviality." He also serves the stew at his restaurant in Albi, visited by the Tour this week.
Wisest to make cassoulet a day ahead, so the flavors mix and deepen. BAGUETTE AND BUTTER: With two moderate Pyrenean climbs, Thursday's Stage 12 from Toulouse, where cassoulet and rugby are both big, wasn't tough enough for Thomas and his rivals to go at each other hammer and tongs. So they allowed a large group of riders not eyeing the overall title to go off ahead for the stage win. Simon Yates outfoxed and outsprinted two other riders at the finish in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. The Briton now has stage wins at all three of cycling's grand Tours.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I have a good reason to hurt myself even more than usual." - Race leader Julian Alaphilippe vowing to go all-out in the time trial to try to keep his yellow jersey. STAT OF THE DAY: 82.9 - Yates' top speed in kilometers per hour going downhill to the finish. That's 51.5 mph.
NEXT ON THE MENU: There'll be a notable absentee in the time trial: the discipline's world champion, Rohan Dennis. To the bemusement of his team, the Australian abandoned during Stage 12.
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