This year’s Tour De France started in England with three stages to ret the race running and now we have three stages in the Pyrenees to set the final order before the vitally important time trial that ends the race proper.
Today isn’t a summit finish but it’s the longest stage of this year’s Tour De France and it comes at the beginning of the third and final week, a brutal test to inflict with two crucial days to come and one of the toughest tours in recent memory in the legs behind them. If you don’t lose time going uphill – and today’s stiffest test is severe enough to do so for sure – then there’s the double whammy of not only staying safe but also losing (or gaining) time at the finish (more on that later).
We start out at Carcassonne – the place of the second rest day and also the holder of a UNESCO world heritage site in form of the medieval walled town, and then skirt the foothills of the Pyrenees, going over some lumpy terrain with includes 2 4th category climbs (more lumps) before taking a gentle rise from the intermediate sprint in Saint-Girons and hitting the first testing climb of the day, the Col de Portet-d’Aspet. It’s 5.4kms, so a sharp ascent, but has an average percentage of nearly 7% (listed at 6.9%), a tough test for the Peloton even if the group won’t be splitting apart exactly.
As always, there’ll be a fight for position but with especially good reason, as the descent of the Portet-d’Aspet is a fast one. History note here: It was upon this descent that Fabio Casartelli crashed and died in 1995, and the race will pass his monument. You can see a video here that’s sped up on YouTube – note that the hairpins are not vicious and few and far between but that there are many changes of direction, whether subtle or pronounced, and whoever has solid wheels to follow will be in a prime position.
From when on we have a small lump in the valley at Juzet-Izaut, and then we have the Col Des Ares, which is 6km at 5.2%. This is more a warmup for the last tests of the stage in itself, rather than a major climb although it is a fair test. Click on this for another video of the descent, wide and open, short at less than 10kms long (by today’s standards) although with exposed runoffs to the side as you’ll see. We now approach the biggest climb of the day and one of the toughest of the whole tour, the Port De Bales. This comes just over 10 kms after the end of the Ares downhill, and the road begins to rise before the climb proper starts, meaning the now inevitable scrap for position begins yet again. With most teams still likely to have most of their main men, we can expect a blistering pace into and on the Port De Bales.
This is a climb worth of finishing any stage in both length and testing gradient. It’s 11.7kms long at 7.7%, but has two gentle sections of 5.3 and 3.9% and is a very hard, irregular climb, which has a brutal opening 3km (near 9%) and then sandwiches near 10% sections either side of easier sections but then things don’t go below 7.5% until the finish and the gradient is either irregular or extremely high or sometimes both. It’s likely to be a real killer for the main field as the pace is sure to be extremely high – look to AG2R for Romain Bardet, FDJ for Pinot, and maybe Movistar for Alejandro Valverde.
We then have a 19km descent that for want of a better word is essentially the stage finish as it levels out just 2km from the line, which is a sprint finish.
Today’s parcours has the potential to be one of the most fascinating of the race thanks to the finishing position. The Bales, coming after a rest day, is the day’s main launchpad and a test worthy of any day in the Pyrenees with it’s length and gradient amongst the hardest of the climbs we have in this final week and the descent down to Bagnères-de-Luchon is not only high speed but technical in several parts, more than enough to gain an advantage. Again, see the video for flythrough which shows not only the danger and risk but the potential for time to be gained on what is an extremely narrow and twisty road even by Tour standards where technique and body positioning is just as crucial as speed and aero position.
It would be completely understandable if the main men were to take it safe today with two of the hardest summit finishes in the Tour, but the gains are lucrative. Vincenzo Nibali is a showman and the best descender here but would be wise to sit and wait being already clear; However, the next 4 riders are all within striking distance with the added caveat of the man being furthest behind, Tejay Van Garderen, also being by far the best time trialist here and within 2 minutes of second placed Alejandro Valverde and even closer to the French pair of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet.
To throw another twist into things, Bardet’s advantage over pinot os just 16 seconds and he is also the weaker time trialist of the two; However they attacked Pinot on the descent of the Izoard on Saturday to take advantage of his supposed fears descending and while he managed fairly comfortably after, the drop down from the bales is tighter, harder, and much more fearsome. The climb up is more than enough of a test for anyone to get an advantage and time can be taken too on the descent.
All of this is likely to mean a fearsome pace is employed on the Bales, and attacks to gain time could be a plan here – Bardet needs all he can get on Van Garderen and Pinot most likely, and with Pinot at least looking his equal going uphill this may be one of the best chances he has to take serious time. Pinot could also jump – he did so on Stage 8 to ensure he has a prime position for the descent and the same thing could happen here.
If the main favourites all stick together and fight out the stage, then the outstanding favourite would be Alejandro Valverde, the classics specialist of the main men and the quickest in a main (and it would be severely reduced) group by a distance.
However today’s rolling stage looks to be breakaway territory and with two summit finishes to come the Peloton could well take things easily until the serious business of the day. The Aspet and the Bales offer serious KOM points but there are 80 on tomorrow compared to the 25 for today and 50 on offer for 18, so it will be interesting to see if Joaquim Rodriguez an Rafal Majka attempt to make a break today. Majka is the stronger of the two climbing and is favoured by the length of these ascents, and is only second on countback, but Saxo have other options too and the polka dot jersey won’t be decided today.
Saxo also have Nico Roche and Michael Rodgers, who has two stage wins in the Giro this year, one showcasing his climbing power when he lasted best on Monte Zoncolan (albeit helped by a crude moment of fan intrusion costing Francesco Bongirno), having previously held off a 40 man sprint finish on the run into Savona the day before. He packs a mean sprint amongst likely breakway contenders and is riding strongly enough (less than a minute down on the GC men in the Alps on both summit finishes) to distance any companions to the climb up. He’s conservatively priced at just 12/1 but would make a great deal of appeal in play if making the break tomorrow.
These are the same roads that Tomas Vockeler won on in 2010 but he’s plainly not the same rider now as he was then and has struggled for large parts of this race. Giovanni Visconti’s a likely type to make a break but he was distanced on the Chevres on Stage 10, a tad offputting but he can make it over big climbs if the gap is big enough. At this stage of a grand tour the same names are in the break, so here’s the big group that went on Saturday
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Geraint Thomas and Mikel Nieve (Sky), Steven Kruijswijk (Belkin), Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Nicolas Roche and Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Peter Sagan and Alessandro de Marchi (Cannondale), Amaël Moinard (BMC), Jose Serpa (Lampre-Merida), Nicolas Edet and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), Jesus Herrada (Movistar), Christophe Riblon (AG2R-La Mondiale), and Albert Timmer (Giant-Shimano). – Simon Yates made the move but is being pulled out as planned by ORICA.
The worry is that all those names would need a big gap, as most went to pieces when Geraint Thomas – a contender if he makes another escape today – forced the pace and they all fell away upto the final climb apart from Majka. Watch out especially for the Katusha pairing of Triofimov and Spilak, both nailed on the line in Dauphine having borken up the climb to Finaut-Emosson.
With so much uncertainty rather than have a stake, here are the two names to focus on in two scenarios.
Advice – Update
Alejandro Valverde (assuming small gap for the break on foot of Port De Bales)
Michael Rodgers (assuming he makes the breakway)