Today’s the last day in the Pyrenees and the mountains of this Tour De France, and with a crucial time trial all that’s left to come in terms of shaking the final leader board – albeit at 54km, a long one, even by tour standards – a huge amount is still up for grabs. Vincenzo Nibali should be taking his first Tour and not just that but also his third different grand tour, putting him amongst an elite group, but the second and third spots on the podium are well up for grabs while the Italian on all known form is one of two that can realistically challenge Rafal Majka following his fantastic stage win yesterday, Saxo’s third high mountain raid, and his second. What could have been for Alberto Contador?
If yesterday was packed with explosive ascents in just over 80km after a rocket like pace from Katusha then today is all about two climbs, although they are arguably the most fearsome of the Tour. The first 60 or so km have three small lumps, two of them meriting category 3 status, before the road takes a gentle side and 78kms into the day, we have the first of our two big climbs.
Giles Belbin, author of Mountain Kings, tell us that the Tour has visited the Col Du Tourmalet 81 times (if you count finishes at La Mongie, which is just 4km away) and it is a mythical road in Tour history with Eugene Christophe’s bike snap just one of many moments that the history books will tell of. It’s the second longest climb in this year’s race, and while it doesn’t have the gradient changes of typical Pyrenean climbs it’s just as testing an affair because of the relentless gradient.
The road rises gradually but steadily beforehand and the first 5 kilometres are easy by the standards that we’ve had so far, a good rolling test of 4-5% with a kilometre at 2.5%, but from then on the next 12km are all at 7% at least with sections of 9 and 10% dominating with the test being able to stay with the pace of whoever’s leading with no respite from start to finish of the climb proper. The descent is technically 36km long (it’s much slower the closer we get to the valley) and on wide roads – it’s nowhere near as technical as the other side of the Bales yesterday – which offers a chance to get back on, but it’s likely that we’ll have a very small break or yellow jersey group going over the top. See here for a guide to both sides which sums up the riding experience in general.
Then, we arrive at the last mountain test of the Tour and again, one of the famous in history. If anything, the Hautacam is a perfect mixture of glory and infamy for the Tour De France. This is where Luc Leblanc came through the fog with Miguel Indurain after nearly 264km, where Rijs went through the big ring to blast away Indurain, when Oxtoa climbed away to take the day, holding off the flying Lance Armstrong in foul conditions while Ullrich, Panatani, and Indurain floundered; In 2008 we saw the first signs of cracking from Cadel Evans as Juan Jose Cobo amongst others broke away.
If the Hautacam is woven into the history of the Tour then it is also the perfect racing climb. It has a tough start, gradient changes, a punishing distance and a super hard finish as well of 8%. There are lower – relative to the Tour De France – percentages for the power climbers and vicious sections for the flyweights, both of whom get their chance before the line. That said, the irregularity through the whole climb – there is even a section that goes downhill – makes this one for the out and out flyweights. The Inner Ring has more.
Yesterday I shot myself in the foot with Thibaut Pinot disappointing while Rafal Majka won out of the break and today it’s hard to know exactly which scenario to come down on either side of. Much is dependent on the size of the break with Joaquim Rodriguez the only man apart from Nibali who can take polka dots away from Majka – although he would need to be involved at the end of the finish today, something that he hasn’t been so far, to do so and his chances may have evaporated.
If Majka goes into a break he would again be the outstanding choice – even with two stage wins, he’s going so well that a gap of even a minute seems to be more than enough and winning out of the Peloton is also not out of the question for the pole. The 5/1 on offer for him to win today is tempting, and if anything value on what we’ve seen so far – he was no bigger than 4’s yesterday. That price becomes big if he goes into an escape but Rodriguez needs to take the summit finish several places ahead and it may be wise for him to stay with the faourites and keep the break on a tight leash leading to Hautacam – or should the break be acceptable, then it’s likely to have a strong chance and it becomes an in play market – see twitter for the ideas.
Other breakaway names will include Alessandro De Marchi and Giovanni Visconti again, with the Movistar man looking strong when second yesterday, albeit having mistimed an attack. If Mikel Nieve is fit then he may be another choice although he hasn’t raised an effort big enough so far to stay away; The same for Jose Serpa. Yesterday we had a first our of racing so fast that a big group of names near to the lead on GC went clear (think Schleck, Van Den Broeck, Rolland), but none were able to stay properly clear and that question lingers in the back of the mind even with a group of strong climbers – one may stay away but who and which one on a climb that is 3 kilometeres longer than yesterday with attacks likely to come from below?
Amongst the main favourites, Jean Cristophe-Peraud has emerged as one of the strongest climbers, finishing clear of the rest by nearly a minute including Pinot, Bardet, Valverde and Van Garderen. The 37 year old former mountain biker has provided AG2R with a welcome respite considering Romain Bardet’s blowout two days ago and with Alejando Valverde well in sight – he is just 42 second ahead of him – he will look to gain time before the time trial on Saturday, a discipline in which the two are closely matched.
Valverde complained of a gear problem when losing time on the climb to Risoul but he has since been dropped on every mountain stage and while limiting his losses and actually taking time on Pinot and others, he will have even less of a hiding place over the 30km of climbing that we have today and this is likely to be a survival matter. Pearud has finished 6th, 4th, 9th, 3rd, and 4th on the stages with summit finishes (and one uphill), and with Romain Bardet possibly now an ally – although this is a climb that he will love with ever changing steepness and high percentages even though he has looked tired of late.
The 37 year old is just a point shorter than Pinot, and the third favourite, which looks big if the favourites come together as one with the Frenchman clearly equal or on a far superior level to the rest of the main favourites and he looks worth backing each/way with Nibali a class clear and possibly wanting a win on Huatacam for pride – whatever you think of the absence of Froome and Contador he has done a fine job otherwise and will want the history books to show that to a massive degree – and the potential of a breakaway winner.
Advice – Update
1 pt each/way Jean Cristophe Peraud (10/1 Boylesports)
0.5 pt each/way Thaigo Machado (40/1 Bet365, 25/1 Boylesports)
1 pt each/way Mikel Nieve (16/1 Boylesports