It’s been just the seven stages but already we’ve seen enough drama for several previous Tour renewals and yesterday’s big losers were both American. Tejay Van Garderen fell less brutally than Andrew Talansky, but the BMC rider lost a minute and the services of John Apatuma, while Talansky’s huge hit comes at the worst time with the Vosges on the menu and the first summit finish coming on Monday.
And today there’s more danger; all crammed into the second half of the stage as the likely forecast is for rain from 120km in – and the last 40km of today’s stage contain the descents for the Col de la Croiz and the Cold de Grosse Pierre, along with a fast run to the finish where we have the hike upto Gerardmer, the first uphill finish of the Tour but taken from an Ardennes Classic rather than an actual summit finish. The climbs are tough affairs, the first real skirmishes up the hills, but the descents are hard enough already without rain, so there could be an awful lot of trouble especially with a stage win up for grabs.
Today sees us go to the Vosges, where we will have the first “day in the mountains” tomorrow, and the second really decisive day for the general classification coming on Monday. However the day is not exactly taking for 134km, until we come to the first of three categorised climbs – the Col de la Croix des Moinants. Only the second Category 2 climb of this race, it’s a good stamina test at 7km and averages 6% with the hardest sections being 5 and 6km in (average of 6.8% and 7.3% as listed) before the climb eases off at the end, so watch for the sprint for king of the mountains points. Another thing to note is that the climb is a narrow, winding affair, so position is likely to be at a premium for GC contenders – expect a big selection here.
We then have 5km of short, sharp descending before a climb that closely resembles the finish to make tasty a double header, the Col De Grosse Pierre, another of the many classic style hills we’ve seen inserted into the opening week. There are just 11kms to go to the finish here and while the roadbook says 3km at 7.5%, the opening and closing km’s are light in comparison and the bulk of the climb is 11.3 and 7.7%, with selections of 16% towards the top. Look for attacks here as the finish is fast with sweeping bends on the descent, which is a fast and generous affair with at least one stopping corner (at about 6.3kms to go) before the final lump to Gerardmer. This measures 1.8km, and is an average of 10.3%. The road is fairly tight but by now it would be a surprise if the group was big enough to be across the road and it’s likely that we’re going to have a speed contest of the kind that we see for the Ardennes Classics.
This stage best resembles Fleche Wallone, except for the repetition of short sharp climbs, we have two sorting tests in the last 30km to remove all non climbers – the harder the Croix is raced the more people will be dropped – and today is likely to be another hybrid reduced group of classics men and the main GC favourites. In Sheffield we had just 21 present at the finish and yesterday just the 27, so it’s likely to be similar situation today if we have a bunch contest – the early break will have Cyril Lemoine and Biel Kadri at least present with others too looking for a potential run present – Jens Voigt has the jersey within reach for instance.
Wallone finishes on Mur de Huy, the 1.3 km long 9.3 %, max 19 % climb, and today has a less extreme top gradient but is even longer. The winner that day by a comprehensive three seconds was the prolific Alejandro Valverde – 9 times a winner this year -,who has been ever present and untroubled but for his crash on the cobbles when everyone but Nibali went down once or twice. He was second in Liege-Bastone-Liege, the other major hilly classic, but that day was outsprinted and assuming he’s delivered to the finish in one go, has to be the favourite today and 9/2 looks a fair price.
Alberto Contador can be expected to be present, as he has been on every climb, and he has gapped Valverde earlier in the season (Pais Vasco) and has form up super steep climbs, such as the Muro Di Guardiagrele, the hellish inclusion in Tirreno which had percentages of 30% and averaged 22%. That is probably the best test we have in terms of the finish leading upto now and his form looks tuned to a tee for this test.
Michal Kwaitkowski was third in Wallone and is another obvious contender for today, and this is Nibali’s terrain too for all that he may sit tight on his jersey with little threat. If the GC men come as a group, Bauke Mollema could be huge value. At the front of all the leading groups so far, he was seventh in Amstel Gold and fourth in Wallone. Steep percentages are not an issue and neither is his form, so he should be considered.
The issue with thinking in terms of the GC men purely is that chasing is impossible for the last 20kms with a decent gap. With the first mountain tests around the corner, it would be no surprise to see a break let go and there are big gaps all over the GC and a number of teams with no reason to be chasing.
Michael Albasini wasn’t the no.1 pick for Orica yesterday – much like Michal Kiwatkowski wasn’t for Omega Pharma – but he’s potentially just far down enough at 3.29 to be let go and he’s been fifth and seventh in the last two Fleche Wallone editions. Joaquim Rodriguez would normally be all over the winner of this stage, but he’s been so far off the pace there are doubts about him being well enough for this – however if he makes it into the morning break then he’d have to be given a decent chance.
Jan Bakelants may not have the form but he has the Tour De France experience of rolling stages and he’s also 7 minutes down, making him an ideal breakway candidate. Cyril Lemoine will surely get into the escape as he holds the jersey today ahead of the real climbs and if doing so, he may well trade shorter than his 208 on Betfair pre stage and at 20 minutes down nobody’s going to mind him being away – why not? Remember if you’re backing each/way that Boylesports and Betfred are paying 5 places, a must given that it covers a group finish or a breakaway.
1 pt Alejandro Valverde (9/2 general)
1 pt Alberto Contador (8/1 Paddy Power)
1 pt each/way Bauke Mollema (25/1 Boylesports, Betfred*)
0.5 pts each/way Michael Albasini (25/1 Betfred)
Back to lay Cryil Lemoine (208 Betfair)