A day out in La France Profonde

Stage eight was a classic ‘quiet’ stage of the Tour, taking their riders through La France Profonde, the heart of rural France

Going to Colombey’ is a French political metaphor for the act of withdrawing from the frontline of public life in order to return at a later date when some national emergency demands it. Colombey-les-Deux-Églises was the home of Charles De Gaulle, who as a general led the Free French Forces during World War Two, then returned to public life to become the first President of the Fifth Republic in 1958. In between, he went back to live a quiet life in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises.

You could say that the favourites of the Tour de France did their own version of going to Colombey as they went to Colombey on stage eight of the 2024 Tour de France. On a quiet day – an almost-textbook break-hold-chase-catch-sprint – Tadej Pogačar, Remco Evenepoel et al hid in the bunch, let events unfold without getting involved, and awaited more interesting times.

(These will come tomorrow.)

Stage eight had some topographical interest. The first part of the stage was punctuated by tricky climbs, with fast descents made slick and hazardous by the rain. But this was largely a quiet day on the Tour, especially when the riders made a collective decision not to make things complicated. When stages like this turn up in the third week, it can sometimes take two hours or more for the break to go, and that break usually sticks. But this time, a trio of riders – Stefan Bisegger and Neilson Powless of EF Education-EasyPost and Jonas Abrahamsen of Uno-X Mobility – slipped away and gained a gap. Bisegger and Powless had obviously been hoping for more ambition from their peers, and worked out that they probably had a zero per cent chance of winning as a break of three, and a zero per cent chance of winning if they went back to the bunch only they’d be less tired, so drifted back, leaving Abrahamsen to spend a lonely day up front.

Perhaps it was apt that this was a quiet day. Stage eight didn’t have the legendary climbs of the Alpine and Pyrenean stages. Nor the cultural cachet of visiting any of France’s great cities, like Bordeaux (good sprints), Paris (good tourism), Lyon (good food) or Toulouse (good chocolatines). Colombey-les-Deux-Églises does at least have a small tourist trade on the back of the De Gaulle connection – his old house is there, as is his grave, a museum and a massive Cross of Lorraine which serves as a monument to his contribution to France. But in general, stage eight of the 2024 Tour de France, Semur-en-Auxois to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises looked like nothing more than a way of getting the Tour from the Burgundy time trial to the Troyes gravel stage.

However, the nondescriptness is the point. This is La France Profonde, the indefinable expanse of the country that is neither north nor south, east nor west, stretching in a rough curving diagonal around Paris from Normandy through Pays de la Loire and Centre and into Burgundy. La France Profonde, sometimes known as ‘le diagonale du vide’ (empty diagonal), may not have the geological interest of France’s celtic fringes, coastline and mountain regions, but it is the breadbasket of the country, and according to popular perception, is where the ‘real’ France is. It is the France of quiet villages, cafés on small squares that serve pastis, hunting in autumn, hay bales and Monday closing. It’s nondescript but at the same time, it’s very scenic and charming – it’s the France we see from the Tour de France helicopter shots, a patchwork of large fields, gently rolling hills and small areas of woodland.

Photo: James Startt

It’s easy to forget that France is not particularly densely populated. It’s outside the top 100 countries in the world for population density, though it’s the 42nd biggest country in the world. 80 per cent of its inhabitants live in urban areas, which means that a lot of it is pretty empty. At the same time, the rural regions have a tight hold on the French imagination and self-image – La France Profonde may not have the most people, but it is understood to be the ‘real’ France. And the stages that take the peloton through these areas, from one small town to another, equally, are the ‘real’ Tour de France. The mountain stages are epic, with their massive climbs and huge crowds. But the mountain regions aren’t populated in the same way as La France Profonde – the peloton passes through fewer towns and villages, because there simply are fewer towns and villages in the mountains. On a day like stage eight, the peloton is passing through multiple small towns and villages, and while the riders and their bikes have changed over the years, the image of the bunch streaming through a French town in front of cheering crowds could be from 2024, 1994 or 1964. It’s also important to remember that the point of the Tour de France is that it is a journey around the host country, and every journey involves getting from A to B to C via the places in between. And the Tour understands well that the culture and character of the different regions of France are what gives the race its colour, whether they have interesting roads from a racing perspective or not.

Not much happened on stage eight of the 2024 Tour de France from Semur-en-Auxois to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. But it is and was as much a part of the race as the Italian Grand Départ, the ascent of the Galibier, the Burgundy time trial, or any of the challenges to come.

Main image: Getty Images

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