It has taken 2 weeks but the Tour De France has finally reached the Alps and we now reach a second half of a race that is backloaded with climbing and descending. For all those that have realistic aims of the podium – at least 8 riders – the race is on to Paris, and the race is also onto see if Vincenzo Nibali can be caught.
Today we have one of the most crucial days of the tour, the long trek upto Chamrousse, starting at Saint-Etienne and taking a mostly flat route to the two major ascents of the day at the end of the route. We start climbing after just 10km, with the Col de la Croix de Montvieux. It’s an easy test by these standards, just 4.1%, but it’s 8km length is a perfect platform for the day’s breakaway to establish itself, and likely to be fiercely contested given the nature of the stage.
From the decent into Sere, there is no coceiveable climbs, for 92km enough time for an escape group to gain a large gap before the day’s two major asecents. The first is a new one in the Tour De France, the Col de Palaquit. This is listed as a 14km climb at 6.1% but there’s a descent in the middle that’s 2km long, meaning the 12km of actual climbing is in reality closer to 8% than the official listing.
It’s a long affair, hade harder by the several hairpins across the route but also an irregular one, with percentages regularly jumping from double to single digits, and an easier slope after the descent from Quaix-En-Chaterouse which has a high of 6.3% suddenly turns into a 5km stretch with a minimum percentage of 8.2% amongst sections of 10.5 and 11.7% before the climb offers some respite at the top, with the last kilometre averaging “just 5.4”. A fine feature on the nature of he road and the geography comes from the fantastic Inner Ring, and can be found here.
The descent is a long and steep one, so positioning at the top is likely to be fiercely contested, before we go into a small flat valley – ironically where today’s sprint points are located and then begin to climb again. The road actually rises before the start of the climb upto the ski station road for Chamrousse, taking a general slope of 4% before we hit the climb proper.
If the first summit finish upto La Planche Des Belles Filles was all about coping with the steep percentages after a day where the weather had been atrocious, today is all about stamina with the climb being 18.2km long, the longest summit finish of the tour – no mean feat when four of the 5 stages of this tour end with summit finishes that are over 10km in length – on the hottest day of the Tour so far with temperatures set to exceed 6 degrees in the valleys while it will be 25 degrees at the finish.
It is also the first altitude test, with the finish coming at 1,730m above sea level, which brings a very different challenge for the main contenders compared to anything we’ve seen so far.
The climb’s toughest tests come early, with the opening 4 kilometeres having percentage profiles of 8.8, 8.1, 11.1 and 8.6% before the first of 5 “easy patches”, before a the hardest 2 kilometres (9.5, 11.4%) – containing the last double digit percentages of the climb with more than 10km remaining. We then have a long, regular road where pacing is likely to be key to either chasing back onto lost wheels and the road doesn’t rise above 8.7%, and that
As with any stage, there are two scenarios. The first is that a breakway, using the nearly 100km of flat, goes away and contests the win, holding too big a gap for the main group to reel back. The other is that the main favourites, fighting for position at the approach to the Palaquit – which is a sharp one indeed, with a left turn likely to bring riders to a near standstill before the climbing begins, set a strong pace up the climb, and a strong pace up the Chamrousse, which is 18.2km long, a massive test for an escape or long rider to stay away.
Both have to be considered strongly. Up to La Planche Des Belles Filles the same names –an elite group of eight – that dominated the short hike upto Gerardmer came to the fore on La Plache De Belles Filles, finishing 30 seconds clear of the result of the Peloton.
Vincenzo Nibali however, was a dominant winner, attacking with just under 4 kilometres to go and doing the damage with his initial surge, and eventually ending 15 seconds clear of the rest of the main favourites. It was a fantastic show of support and one that indicated that he’s not likely to lose this Tour barring accidents or ill health.
If anything, in a finish of the favourites the 3/1 offered on him leaping clear looks extremely generous, and a big long winding road is perfect for the Italian to sit and watch before making a late bid for glory. However he has a large lead at the head of affairs already and he may well elect to sit on his lead to Paris – even with so much climbing to come after today.
Alejandro Valverde has had great success on this kind of climb in the past – he took a breakaway success on the climb to Peryagudes 2 years ago – and while being quiet, turned out to be deceptively strong on Monday, winning the sprint for third and jumping into third on the podium. This is the best and most likely last chance he’ll have at a yellow jersey, and with Richie Porte the far superior time trialist it would not surprise to see an attack from him at some point, as he’s just 24 seconds down on second place and he holds a strong chance if they come as a group with the fast finish for a mountain day suiting – it’s worth remembering that they did on Monday.
Jean Cristophe Peraud would probably have taken a well deserved top 10 finish last year if it hadn’t been for his tragic double crash on the stage 18 time trial last year and he was super strong in helping Romain Bardet, in the white jersey and also just 3 minutes off Nibali, on Monday while Richie Porte’s seventh may have seen him lose 5 seconds to Valverde although he was left isolated early and did the majority of the pulling for the chase after Nibali had broken. Look out for the Sky man today, as this is the kind of climb their whole philosophy is built around and the kind of climb Porte has burnt himself into the ground for Chris Froome on many an occasion.
All of them presumably had no answer to Thibaut Pinot’s (pictured) late jump for glory, the young French prodigy looking in inspired form as he cut his losses to Nibali to just 15 seconds and made a late bid for retirement – the FDJ man claiming he would quite if he won on Bastille Day – and posted a second excellent effort of the race, having finished just off Porte on stage 8. He looks to be in great form today and with Nibali perhaps less inclined to jump – he has two stage wins already – and while he knew the roads for Monday’s test he was fourth behind Vavlerde on the road to Peyagudes and should be one of those more suited to a long grinding affair where other teams with big aims – think Astana, Sky, Movistar – will be on the front for various reasons and if you’re taking what we’ve seen so far literally he’s one of the top three climbers in the race – Betfred’s 14/1 with 4 places looks tasty and the best value of the favourites with a lot in his favour again.
If a breakway was to go clear, than Joaquin Rodriguez is the obvious pick – note that Astana will pull to make sure he’s in it if he misses an early escape as well. There will be more lucrative days for the polka dot jersey but today’s finish offers 50 points to the winner and it’s not one he can afford to miss. He’s had no sort of preparation for the Tour but has found form quickly and on Monday lasted the best by far of the break, finishing just 50 seconds down on Nibali despite extending his energy on the climbs beforehand. Today will be less of a test for the break even though he’ll need a big gap, but bookmakers have cottoned onto his prospects with a best price of just 13/2 and I have him backed for the polka dots as well.
With Contador out, Team Saxo-Tinkoff will be itching to have a man in the break and Nico Roche and Mick Rodgers are the pair to watch, especially before riding the Giro begins to put the hurt on them. Michael Rodgers is interesting at 20’s with Betfred, as his experience over many years meaning he will know how to pace his effort up Chamrousse, and he has looked a little stronger than his Irish counterpart although if the two got into the break then they’d both be worth backing in play.
Leopold Konig’s GC ambitions are written off but he’s in an uncomfortable spot at just 8.25 down where he could threaten if given enough of a gap. Dani Navarro, ninth in a mountainous route last year, is a threat to nobody, easily good enough to go close to the best on these climbs, was just 11th on Monday without the help of a break, and looks to be a realistic option for a Confidis squad that has had nothing to cheer of any kind so far barring Cryil Lemoine’s time in the mountains jersey. It would be a surprise not to see him try for an escape early and he could easily have snuck under the radar.
Europcar keep trying to Tommy Vockler will presumably get in but he hasn’t had the legs this season and Christophe Riblon and Arthur Vichot are said to be sick; Fränk Schleck and Brice Feillu could go but do they have the form?
UPDATE: An early break has gone at the time of writing and it does not contain Navarro, or any of Saxo-Tinkoff. Instead for Cofidis Rudy Mollard is in a break of 9 that has Bartosz Huzarski (NetApp), Brice Feillu (Bretagne), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale), Biel Kadri (AG2R), Kristjan Durasek (Lampre) and Daniel Oss (BMC). Of those 9 two stand out as being good enough to potentially last home – Visconti and Kadri. Visconti won two stages from breaks in the Giro last year, including one with a final climb to the Col du Galiber, so he knows how to get home over a long testing climb, while Kadri’s stage eight win was the best form that anyone else in the escape has to offer over this tour.
Back Biel Kadri and Giovanni Visconti (1 pt each, 34 and 30 on Betfair, 25/1 general fixed odds)
1 pt each/way Thibaut Pinot (14/1 Betfred)
1 pt each/way Dani Navarro (28/1 Betfred)
Remember to wait for inplay – And look out for Saxo-Tinkoff men in particular