Many will be nursing a severe World Cup hangover – and what a tournament it was – but those who are into cycling have the elixir of the Tour De France’s first proper mountain day as we head into one of the most decisive days of the race.
We’ve had tasters in the Vosges over the last two days, with Tony Martin turning on the power to turn yesterday into a procession after a day frontloaded with climbs, and also the short sharp climb upto Gerardmer that saw of the main favourites take a pop at eachother, but this is the real thing. Seven categorized climbs, 4 of which are category 1, and also La Planche Des Belles Filles. Those who remember the 2012 Tour, when Chris Froome helped put Bradley Wiggins in yellow, will know of the fierce climb, but that came after a docile day with 2 category 3 climbs, but tomorrow it’s the final test of a hard mountain day that will grind the peloton into the ground.
It starts at the same place yesterday’s stage finished, in Mulhouse, but after just 20km we have the Col Du Firstplan, 8.3km at 5.4%. This, and the first 20km, will be raced at a ferocious pace, as today’s break is not only crucial for king of the mountains contenders with at least 4 climbs well up for grabs to an escape (including 2 category 1 ascents), and today is only Bastille Day, the French national holiday. Soon afterwards we have the Petit Ballon, the first real test of this year’s Tour in a climbing sense – Le Markstein was long but not the most testing in gradient yesterday. An escape will be presumably be clear but now but Petit Ballon is very narrow with winding gradients, so position will be at a premium.
If you’re having a bad day then there’s no hiding place, as it’s a 9.3 kilometre-long climb at 8.1%, so gradient and length will find you out. The descent is also winding with small roads, so position at the top is as crucial as the bottom, and the pace is likely to be fast (today’s stage is just 161.5km). The Platzerwasel is less severe and complicated as the roads is nice and wide by climbing standards and while it’s a testing climb the gradient is steady enough. The descent is long before the Col d’Oderen, which is 6.7km at 6.1%, and 20kms later (after a small bump in the middle at Le Thillot, according to the race profile at least), the Cold des Croix.
Now we get onto today’s deciding factors. The Col Des Chevrères is listed as just 3.5km long but the road is rising for 6km beforehand, as shown in the profile below. I keep saying it but I’ll repeat again, positioning is everything as the approach is narrow and the real stuff at the top even narrower. The actual marked climbs has an average of 9.5% and has an first kilometre with an average of 7% and an easing gradient before we hit two rock hard sections, about 1.5km at an average of 10.0% and 14.9% with maximum sections of 18% before the sprint to the top. The descent starts narrow but picks up with a wider road, and we don’t have long before the feature finish, La Planche Des Belles Filles. This is basically a finishing wall, only 5.9km but averaging 8.5% overall with sections of 13%, and 11% twice as the road winds with small flats meaning the actual gradient is so much steeper. The road will wind to and from although stretches are very long and pacemaking is definitely possible as Team Sky showed (see right).
The actual finish is also a gamebreaker – after a fast run up from the flame rouge (well compared to the short hairpin leading into a legbreaking section of 20% before the line – the same place where Chris Froome launched his stage winning attack 2 years ago – todays is definitely one for the pure climbers in terms of the finish and also of gaining time. As severe as the test is, it’s unlikely that we’ll see Tour defining gaps – the field were close in 2012, albeit with a much easier day today –
An escape has gone the past two days but it’s much harder to see it succeeding today. The race’s best climbers (apart from one notable exception) are all in the general classification battle still and while and escape will go, the fight for position upto the Chevrères will put a large amount of pressure on the gap and the same for the finishing climb, a strength sapping affair where big engines could real in any escape.
Alberto Contador has looked back to his best all season and in the strongest races, as been the main man for summit finishes, winning four stages this season along with two stage races, while he was also strongest of the generous classification contenders on the hike upto Emosson and clear with Froome from major pretenders today on the first summit finish to Col Du Beal. This climb is made for him, with the steep percentages his domain, while his Saxo Tinkoff team looked strong in pace setting on Saturday and had the advantage of resting behind Astana yesterday as they left the yellow jersey on the shoulders of Tony Gallopin; On Saturday’s finish at Gerardmer he was also the strongest of the main contenders and looked most at ease.
He has to go early, with Vincenzo Nibali still two and a half minutes ahead of him, and while the Spainard’s favourite for the Tour after Saturday he won’t be winning it today based on what we’ve seen on this climb previously. The Italian had been in dreadful form before we’d started this week but has looked to be in peak condition so far, and even thought much of his time gain is thanks to the difficulties others suffered on the cobbles, he distanced all the race’s major players with Contador upto Mulouse before being distanced at the line. This kind of finish suits him, as do extremely steep percentages – he was fourth in 2012 as a much lesser rider than he is now – and he looks to be a fine each/way bet at 8/1 with Betfred paying 4 places – on the form we’ve seen so far he should be in a position to try and reel Contador to the line and that’s a high level of form.
Richie Porte was third on Saturday, a much better effort than we’ve seen from him all season and he seemed to show the same form that Team Sky are claiming he’s shown in training. If so, he’s going to take some dropping here, as this climb is one he stormed 2 years ago and he still has a lot of climbing support here to help him despite Xabier Zandio’s absence.
This is Bastille Day so expect attacks from Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet; The latter may be more suited to this particular ascent and it’s sharp twisty kicks but the former looked better on Saturday, albeit without the real form of substance all year. Pierre Rolland is likely to try but I doubt his climbing form and we have to see how much energy he spent yesterday
Tejay Van Garderen has recovered from his crash in good style (close up on Saturday and comfortable on ascents since) having looked comfortable, and be beat Bardet at Catalunya earlier in the season – it is a great surprise to see him as big as 50’s for the win today, a price hard to resist although he’s short on climbing support for a GC man. This could be too much for Rui Costa, and Bauke Mollema hasn’t looked as good in the race as hoped from the snapshots we’ve seen.
I would expect and hope to see Alessandro De Marchi and Joaqium Rodriguez, both active In their search for polkadots in the break but the only real escape men who would make appeal today are the Spaniard and Leopold Konig although Javier Cavevo (on hold for Talansky) is another name that could be there – I expect an escape to be swallowed up but Konig is worth a look for pre race trading purposes.
Of my pre race picks, Alejandro Valverde needs to show his face here, as he can’t afford to wait if a podium challenge is coming and he was a little off the pace on Saturday but as said before that’s a different test – Andrew Talansky is in an ever more dire situation but he may have the benefit of a little bit of free rein to boot being so far down and he has been coming to a peak over the past few weeks.
1 pt each/way Vincenzo Nibali (8/1 Betfred)
1 pt each/way Richie Porte (11/1 Boylesports)
Back to lay Leopold Konig (51 Betfair)