Day 4 of the 2012 Tour de France, and at long last, the race is actually in its home country, with a start from Orchies, a familiar place for classics specialists. While the route flirts with the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, it actually rides straight away from them towards the hills of the Boulonnais.
The stage features six big climbs in 100 kilometres, four of which come in the last 16 kilometres. This could mark the opening of hostilities in the Tour and for my money, its another day well suited for BMC Racing’s Phillipe Gilbert. Mark Cavendish and the rest of the sprinters will spend the day riding in defense of their GC contenders.
Connected to Lille and Valenciennes by the A23, Orchies is located about twenty kilometres from Tournai, end of the previous stage. The two towns put in a joint proposal to host the Tour de France, which is a first in the history of the event. Another first for Orchies and the Tour: in 1982, the stage team time trial that was to take place there was cancelled due to a strike by steel workers. Cycling paradise, the city has, for many years, held the Grand Prix d’Orchies and the Critérium des As in 1978 and a stage finish of the 4 Days of Dunkirk in 2011 while each year the Paris-Roubaix race crosses its cobblestones. In 2013, its reputation as a sports city will be further strengthened when it hosts the Women’s European Basketball Championship when several games will take places in the new 5,000 seat sports centre. World capital of chicory, Orchies also houses a museum dedicated to the blue écoubelle, the chicory flower.
Close to the Channel Tunnel, in the heart of the Opal Coast and the green and hilly Boulonnais area, Boulogne-sur-Mer, thanks to its communication networks, is less than three hours from London or Amsterdam, and two hours from Paris or Brussels. Second most populous city in the Pas de Calais, the leading fishing port in France and Europe’s premier centre for seafood processing Boulogne-sur-Mer offers a seafood gastronomy greatly appreciated by all gourmets. A university town and listed as a Town of Art and History, it also boasts Nausicaa, the National Sea Centre. Opened in 1991, Nausicaa, one of the largest public aquariums in Europe, named as a Center of Excellence by UNESCO has already welcomed more than twelve million visitors. Boulogne-sur-Mer has many other attractions: from the Upper Town, built on the site of a Roman camp to the waterfront, it offers an architectural heritage that bears witness to two thousand years of history. The castle fortifications are one of the best preserved medieval buildings in France.