A quiet stage in a quiet town

Stage 11 of the 2023 Tour de France took the race to Moulins, in the heart of La France Profonde, for the first time ever

Le Triptyque du Maître de Moulins is a superbly preserved and historically important artwork dating from 1502, which sits in the treasury of Moulins Cathedral, and was painted by the Early Netherlandish artist Jean Hey. Hey did most of his most prominent works in France, and the same could be said of Jasper Philipsen, who had already created his own 2023 Tour de France stage triptych in Bordeaux and executed his fourth sprint masterpiece in Moulins. Philipsen’s record in sprint stages in the Tour is becoming an extraordinary thing: in the last three Tours, he’s finished in the top three of the sprint stages 16 times out of 17, and won six of the last eight.

Not much surprising happens in Moulins, the very last departmental capital on the French mainland to be visited by the Tour de France, so you could argue that Jasper Philipsen taking the stage win is entirely on brand for this sleepy town. For the 2023 race, the day has been a merciful break from the hard work and logistical challenges of the GC stages and days like yesterday to Issoire, where the action started happening at kilometre zero and stopped happening at the finish line. For the riders, it’s one of the Tour’s regular breathing spaces, like stage four to Nogaro, where the peloton takes a collective decision to relax and write a fermata into the musical score of the race.

Moulins is the spiritual capital of La France Profonde, that indefinable space which stretches between the interesting parts of France like a quiet day on the Tour. I was the assistant anglais in Lycée Banville, one of the two high schools in the town, between 1994 and 1995, and watching this unlikely confluence of two things that are important in my life – Moulins and the Tour – has been a heady mix of nostalgia and bemusement. A few other journalists in the Tour’s press pack have been asking me why the Tour has taken so long to finally come here, and the only answer I really have is that Moulins is that kind of place. Not much happens here.

Rather than follow the race on the ground this year, I thought it would be interesting to spend a few days in Moulins and watch the race approach, arrive and then leave again, and to observe what happens when one of the world’s most anarchic, colourful, noisy, brash, tasteless, exciting, exhilarating travelling circuses and the thousands of people it brings with it arrives in a town where the shutters go up at 9pm and the loudest sound in the town centre of an evening is often birdsong.

Moulins markets itself as a ‘ville étape’, which is nothing to do with the Tour de France and everything to do with the fact that it is about halfway between north and south, and east and west, and is therefore a convenient stopping place for an overnight break on a long car journey. When the most interesting and marketable thing about a town is that it is a good place to stop when you are halfway between two more interesting places, maybe there is no surprise that the Tour hadn’t been here before this year. It has appeared in Paris-Nice, but there I rest my case.

Few tourists come to Moulins as a destination, but perhaps more should. I like it because it’s quiet, unpretentious, reassuringly unchangeable and typically French, whatever that means. The wedge-shaped Place d’Allier is the focal point of the town, the Église du Sacré-Coeur at one end, and a child-friendly fountain at the other, and is the home of the Grand Café, the greatest brasserie in the world, which dates from 1898 and is therefore five years older than the Tour de France. It’s a relaxing place to watch the world pass by, even if there isn’t usually that much world passing by in Moulins. 

It’s also a place of great nostalgia for me, a waypoint in my life. Being back here has been a Proustian madeleine of memories, sensory input and nostalgia. The wide boulevards around the centre are still quiet and spacious; the narrow streets that lead out of the Place d’Allier into the old town are still higgledy-piggledy, cobbled and atmospheric, though don’t get too excited about the cobblestones on the Rue de l’Horloge – they laid those when I was here in the mid-90s. The Jacquemart bell tower still taps out the hours, days and weeks, marking the endless rhythm of the seasons and years. I wrote about nostalgia and the Tour in my recent feature for Rouleur magazine about the Puy de Dôme, but I’m also very interested in the overlap the Tour has with life, whether that be on a personal level, or with the wider world. The best thing about the Tour is that it bleeds into the real world, and the real world bleeds into it, and neither is unchanged by the experience. Sometimes, that is a simple interaction of bike racing and the landscape, for example, but for me, that overlap sits exactly on my experience and memories of living in Moulins 30 years ago.

And like celestial bodies passing close to another and pulling on each other’s gravitational fields, the Tour and Moulins will leave their effects on each other, as well as on me. Maybe Moulins’ effect on the Tour was to calm it down and cool its temperature after a broiling day the day before. And the effect of the Tour on Moulins? As I sit on the terrace of the Grand Café at just before 9pm the evening of the Tour stage and type these words, a 30-person conga is making its way round a packed Place d’Allier as a live band performs cycling-themed songs, and maybe some of the many people enjoying the day of the Tour’s visit will end up at Moulins’ premier nightspot, the Triptic.

Tomorrow the Tour moves on, as it always does, but different than it was before, as is the case after every stage there has ever been. The Tour is now part of Moulins, but Moulins is also part of the Tour.

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