13 stages but no mountains for our feathered friends in awareness-raising exercise

While the cycling world is gearing up for the biggest race of the year which starts this Saturday, another sport is already holding its own Tour de France which began on Monday and features 13 stages around the country of between 80 and 200km. Ladies and gentleman, we bring you the Tour de France… for pigeons.

Teams of five pigeons will undertake each stage, flying to their home loft before another five birds take up the relay the following day. One loft is located in Dinan, Brittany, the departure town that the Tour de France peloton will head out of on Stage 6 next Thursday.

If truth be told, it’s more a PR exercise than a race, aimed at reviving interest in the pursuit of keeping and racing pigeons, which has struggled in recent years to attract new fanciers as well as having to deal with threats such as bird flu.

The sport, which can trace its origins back to the 2nd Century AD, became hugely popular in Belgium during the 19th Century, with a breed of pigeon called the Voyageur developed for speed and stamina, qualities of course needed by anyone undertaking the Tour de France on a bike.

Those shared attributes aren’t lost on Belgian pigeon fanciers, either – apparently it’s common for the country’s birds to be named after cycling legend Eddy Merckx.

Coincidentally, the Cannibal’s palmarès include three victories in Paris-Roubaix, and it was in the town that hosts the finish of that race that France’s first pigeon fanciers’ club was formed, way back in 1849.

The Tour de France Colombophile, as it’s officially called, is more an event for the Cavendishes than Contadors of the avian world – the itinerary has been designed to miss out mountainous regions.

Even the Manx Missile would be impressed by the speeds of up to 100kph the birds can reach, however.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.