With two days in the Pyrenees left and the a long time trial to Perigux left to come, it’s still all up for grabs in the Tour De France. And yet so much can be lost in just one day. Yesterday’s finish upto the Port De Bales and down into Bagneres De Luchon promised and delivered on an epic scale. A large break, including many notable names such as Tomas Vockeler and Michal Kwiatkowski, went clear after a fierce first hour – it was well known that this would be one of the best chances of the tour for a break to escape, and many teams missed the original escape, and sent men into the eventual 17 man group.
That group was let clear to a 12 minute lead by the time we came to the climb, with the day’s terrain having not been challenging, but yesterday’s action all came in the last final 40kms, with the Port De Bales and it’s fearsome descent giving as many fireworks as we’d hoped in our preview. The break began to split at the top of the Bales, with Vasil Kirkienya, Kevin Reza and Cyril Gautier all pushing on at various times, and pushing out Roger Kluge, Bernard Eisel, Jeremy Roy, Antony Deplace, Florian Vachon, and Jan Bakelants before we had reached the middle of the climb and it’s supposedly easier graidents in the middle. We saw the likes of Tom Jelte Slagter yo-yo on and off the group, a theme that would be common in the break today, but the pace of Europcar working for Vockeler and the pushing on of Michael Rodgers left a small group at the top as the climbed thinned out, and then Vockeler pushed on and only Jose Serpa and Michael Rogers could follow, with Vasili Kiryienka and Cyril Gautier getting a second wind.
The descent was fast and spectacular, although in general it was not the curse that many felt it would be and the group had stayed together until Michael Rodgers jumped clear soon after three had become 5 with just over 9km to go, and he was not for catching, taking a superb win and giving Saxo-Tinkoff their second mountain stage in succession following Rafal Majka. It was a fine win from a rider who is having a pure renaissance following a long spell at the top of the time trial game – he is a three time World Time Trial champion – and a great boost for the team whose main tour centrepiece had crashed out in Alberto Contador, who has looked so good this season before his accident, although it is a painful reminder of the strength in numbers that the Spaniard could have counted on in this tour.
In behind, the Port De Bales was taken on full pace by Movistar, who went full gas on the climb for Aleandro Valverde, with John Gadret and Benat Inaxusti pushing a vicious pace from the foot to the summit of the climb that whittled a still large group down to just 4 riders approaching 1km to go. This was enough to drop many major players, but the vital names that couldn’t keep up were Tejay Van Garderen and Romain Bardet. Both were dropped midway up the climb, and with the gradient ever changing and the pace extremely high, lost heavy amounts of time; Bardet lost 1.50 to Pinot and Valverde, and Van Garderen lost close to three and half minutes to the majority of his closest rivals, a margin that essentially removes the podium chances that he held. The American is only down one place, but now 3 minutes behind Bardet and with Leopold Konig, doing a stunning job for the soon to be Team-Bora, breathing down his neck.
There are just 4 proper stages left but three of them have huge attacking potential and today’s is arguably the most explosive of the tour. Yesterday’s was the longest stage, but for comparison today’s blast from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary Pla d’Adet covers the same distance that it took the field to reach the intermediate sprint yesterday.
But the routes could not be more different. The first 48km, crossing into Spain through Illleda, are pretty much flat but then we have the first of today’s 4 major climbs, the Col Du Portillion. The field remained large until the Port De Bales yesterday but we’re likely to have a fast pace as today with many suffering is the biggest day remaining in the KOM competitor with 30 points on offer just to the winner of the day’s three climb before the hors-categorie finish which offers double points.
The Portillion is a hard way to start, an 8.3km climb at an average of 6.1% with a gradient that never dips below 5.3 – the sections read 6.6%, 6.6%, 5.4%, 6.8%, 8.3%, 7.7% and 6.1% over the eight kilometres according to the profile. The climb isn’t the stereotypically Spanish ascent, with the gradient being steady and not requiring too many gear changes, but it’s constant, which is of great importance.
The descent has many bends and turns at the beginning and finish, so a fight for position at the top will be important and fierce with squads all wanting a prime spot.
If any non-climber has managed to stick in a group over the top of the Portillion then they will struggle over the Peyresourde. The longest climb of the day, it’s also arguably the hardest. The gradient is 7% but there’s a variant mid-way to pass through villages and the second kilometere is just 3% as well, making the reality of the climb 11kms with a lowest percentage of just 6%, and from kms 7-13 the minimum is of at least 7%. This is likely to be the ride that separates the climbers from the non climbers and puts many in the red with two more climbs still to come.
The descent of the Peyresourde has fewer bends and is shorter, before the next climb starts. All the asecents are tough here but the Col de Val Louron-Azet has an average percentage which is higher than it’s length, and it’s a mean 7.4km long. It starts steeps before 3km that never goes below 9% and the gradient is at times very irregular, changing from 7.5% to 9.2% in the first kilkometres and going upto 10.1% soon after; That is the pattern for the rest of the climb, which ends at a fearsome 8.5km.
The descent is similar and shouldn’t cause too much trouble, before our finish today. The climb upto the Pla d’Adet ski resort is a tough one by itself but the crammed nature of harsh climbs into today’s stage will leave a small group by now to tackle a climb that is 10.2% at 8.3%. At this stage any kind of climbing is tough but the first 7km are the real fearsome meat of this climb, with a steep start of nearly 9% from the get go a set of hairpins that are 9-10%, sections of 8.8, 8.6 and then a final burst of 9.4% before an easiest section of the climb at 5% before two kilometres that are close to 7% and an easier drag to the line that is still uphill.
Today is a real day for the pure climbers, with the vicious percentages and fast pace in such a short distance likely to whittle away teams for what is an explosive finish in the mould of Annecy-Semnoz last year when the top three on the podium fought out the finish and Nairo Quintana took second and the polka dots.
A breakaway will go, either in the first hour or on the Portillion, and it’s likely to have all of the riders aiming for the polka dots with just two days left to really fight for the classification – today’s being the most important especially as there’s 30 points on offer to the first man over all three climbs before 50 points at the finish with GC men lurking.
My shout for polka dot Joaquim Rodriguez and Rafal Majka should aim to go in this break, and of the two Majka has looked in far better form over the past few days, climbing with the leader’s group to second upto Chamrousse and then jumping from the breakaway to Risoul. The worry is when his Giro extortions and a hard season begins to tell and also if his break can stay with GC teams having aims and opportunities a plenty. He’s plenty short now at 7/2 but if you want a man to jump from the break, then Paddy Power will give money back if the stage has a French winner, which provides insurance against the second best climber in the race and the in form man of everyone but Nibali, Thibaut Pinot. Other break names include Alessandro De Marchi and Mikel Nieve but both have not shown the legs for a finish so far and Jose Serpa was involved yesterday in a long effort.
Able to live with Movistar’s vicious pace, Pinot outlasted Van Garderen and the other Frenchmen over Bardet and Jean Cristophe-Peraud, and was in company with Nibali at the top of the climb alone. Valverde was the better of the time trialists last year – he took a minute out of Pinot over a flat 33km course – but the Spaniard has struggled in recent days and was distanced before the top of the Port De Bales, thankfully having John Gadret at the top of the descent to pace him back. Today’s finish is not much easier than the Bales but there’s opportunity all the way up the climb and it would be a surprise not to see another attack from the now white jersey.
Vincenzo Nibali has been the best rider in the race, and wanting to prove a point, has been the last man standing from the maillot jaune group on many occasions, with two high mountain wins to his name already. He looks an obvious bet at Paddy Power’s 3/1, with moneyback if the Frenchman Pinot wins. The Frenchman has been up there from day one in the mountains and is worth backing to final get over the line at 11/2 with Betfair’s sportsbook, covering the two main favourites in anticipation of a GC battle.
In the match bets, take a close look at the 11/8 on Michael Rogers beating Yuri Trofimov. Rodgers has beaten the Russian on three of the four mountain stages we’ve had and on stage 10, Rodgers cancelled his effort to try and help pace back Alberto Contador, sadly unsuccessfully, and he has since beaten him by more than 2 minutes and nearly 40 second out of the Peloton. The worry is that Rodgers softpedals but he looks the stronger climber and may stay with the leading group for longer and the risk looks worth taking.
1 pt Vincenzo Nibali (7/2 Paddy Power)
1 pt Thibaut Pinot (11/2 Youwin)
1 pt Michael Rodgers to beat Yuri Triofimov (11/8 Bet365)