In recent years Week 3 of the Tour de France has felt like a Team Sky coronation. The modern tradition dictated that with a few mountain stages and (normally) an individual time trial remaining, Team Sky’s favoured son would press home an already substantial advantage. The final sprint up the Champs-Élysées was still to play for, but Team Sky would walk away with the big prize.
This year, not so much.
Alaphilippe is still holding onto yellow. But what looked like an iron grip up the Tourmalet quickly turned into a clinging-on-by-the-fingernails up the slopes to the Prat d’Albis. The margin is 1 minute and 35 seconds. With three more mountain stages, it’s hardly even enough to call it a cushion.
Behind Alaphilippe, just 39 seconds separates Thomas, Pinot, Bernal, Kruijswijk and Buchmann. Realistically any one of them could still arrive in Paris in yellow.
So there is more than enough to keep the cameras busy as the peloton moves through the South of France and into the Alps. Here is some of the wildlife the cameras might miss…
A Flamboyance of Flamingos
If we had to find a word to describe the first two weeks of the Tour, flamboyance would not be a bad place to start. Alaphillipe’s swashbuckling, out of the saddle attacks are laced with flamboyance. Sagan pulling a wheelie on a time trial bike, and signing autographs on the way up the Tourmalet, is nothing if not a demonstration in flamboyance.
It’s also the word for a group of flamingos.
Today’s stage starts and finishes in Nimes. Just 50km south of where the action is kicking off, lives a flamboyance of pink flamingos. The growth of this colony, from existential crisis to tens of thousands today, is largely due to the work of a conservationist by the name of Alan Johnson.
Reclaiming the Camargue for the flamingos
In the late 1960s, while working with the Tour de Valat, Alan Johnson investigated why the flamingos were struggling to nest in Camargue (just south of Nimes, in the Rhone delta). This was a precipitous time for the flamingo. Populations in the western Mediterranean were crashing to the lowest levels ever recorded. The Camargue was one of only two remaining regular breeding sites left in the region.
Alan’s conservation work started with careful observation. With data gathered across number of years, he noted two key threats:
Predators – The islets in the delta were drying out earlier in the summer than they had in previous years. This made the area more easily accessible to foxes and wild boar, the natural predators of the flamingos.
Disturbance – Additionally, there was human interference from a French Air Force base in the region. The aerial disturbance from the military aircraft test flights appeared to be contributing to the species’ lack of breeding success.
Armed with this knowledge, Alan set to solving these key problems.
Global problems – local solutions
A powerful local salt producing business owned vast areas in the Camargue. Alan worked with this company to construct an artificial islet in the lagoon. There was a dual benefit to this exercise. The salt production company had an interest in flooding the lagoon to drive salt production. For the conservationists, flooding the lagoon made it inaccessible to the foxes and wolves that otherwise preyed on the flamingos.
Alan then advocated the flamingos’ cause to the French Air Force. He made the case to the Air Force that they should set up flight channels. With these implemented, there was a space without predators and disturbance where the flamingos could breed.
The approach worked. The flamingo population turned a corner and the lagoon quickly came to harbour an average of 10,000 nesting pairs each season. It was a triumph of careful conservation. Years of research helped to evaluate the causes of the decline, and careful targeted goals helped to resolve it.
The future for the flamingos
The protection of these birds remains a work in progress. The land is now owned by a local conservation charity, having been sold by the salt production company. As the company left, so too did the water pumping stations. The flamingos are now more at risk than ever of the lagoons drying and the predators reappearing.
In 2014 the flamingos abandoned the islet after repeated visits from foxes. The flamingos moved to the nearby salt works of Aigues Mortes, the first time a colony has bred there since 1951. It’s possible that the disruption will lead to diversification and new breeding areas, but the balance between the flamingos, their predators and the climate remains precipitous.
You can read more about the flamingos, and support the Tour du Valat at this link.
As for Alan Johnson, he sadly passed away in December 2014 at the age of 73. Shortly before he died, he was awarded a special honour in recognition of his work with flamingos. His methodic approach and astonishing results continue to educate and inspire conservationists.
No series on the wildlife around the Tour de France would be complete without a nod to this little guy. The marmot weighs in at just 4kg and grows up to only 60cm, so why does the name inspire awe and fear to cyclists across Europe?
The reason is of course that it shares its name with one of Europe’s toughest one day rides. Over 174km, amateurs from across the world take on over 5200m of vertical ascent, encompassing the Hors Category climbs of Glandon, Telegraph, Galibier and ending with the punishing Alpe D’Huez.
It is not unusual to spot a marmot when cycling in the Alps (or, more rarely due to hibernation, when skiing). They thrive in the alpine grasslands between 800m and 3200m. Conservationists estimate that there are some 100,000 marmots living in the alpine arc across France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Slovenia. There are more still in the Pyrenees following a successful introduction to the area in 1948.
If you are interested in reading more about this iconic alpine rodent, head to the Alpine Marmot Project.
Or, keep your eyes peeled on Thursday’s stage. The tour will go past the Col du Lautaret, the base for the Alpine Marmot Project. Then, they will carry on up to the Galiber pass, the brutal high point of La Marmotte.
The Wildlife of Le Tour
We have had a huge amount of fun looking at the wildlife across France and Belgium, following the route of the Tour de France.
If you haven’t read them already, you can find out more about the Wildlife of the Tour by checking out our other articles in this series:
Until next time!