Into the mountains we go but Nibali has work to do
With Vincenzo Nibali comfortably installed in the yellow jersey and the only one of the three pre-race favourites to make it to the big mountain stages you could be excused for thinking it's all over in the Tour de France. That would be doing a disservice to the riders directly behind the Italian because although they might be wondering what they can do against a Nibali in top form they'll also be wondering how they can ambush each other. The two Alpine stages will tell us who can still race after two weeks and who seems to be hanging and on hoping for better days but you also need to consider there'll be some of the top ten GC riders better suited to one set of mountains compared to the later ones, which will undoubtedly decide the race.
It might seem like Nibali doesn't need to do anything other than control his nearest rivals, namely Richie Porte and Alejandro Valverde but to be truly comfortable before the final time trial he'll probably want a bigger lead. Something like five minutes in case he has a bad day so a couple of attacks 4 kilometres out ought to achieve that, maybe when the squabbling has become serious and the others are frazzled.
The typical question I used to get asked at the Tour was which are harder, 'the Alps or Pyrenees?' and I always said which ever came second because for me that was more important. I didn't have a preference but I did notice the differences between the two.
The Alpine roads are in better condition, the surfaces are generally excellent (holidays in ski stations being the reason) and although the climbs can be long they tend not to be brutally steep so the racing is faster. That can affect drafting on the climbs and it's also windier in the valleys, especially when it's sunny and hot. It's pretty humid too.
The descents are usually on good roads though the way the route goes this year, down the Izoard, is pretty bumpy for the first part. On some of the smaller cols there can be holes and gravel to deal with but on the big roads and the mountain top finishes it's the speed of the race more than the severity of the slope which makes the decision.
By contrast, the Pyrenees are more of a slog. The surfaces are rougher and though it might be less windy on the actual climbs the grippy nature of the roads saps the strength out of you. Just to add to the obstacles, melting tarmac and loose gravel are certainties if it's warm. The gradients tend to be much less uniform than in the Alps, thus it's harder to get rhythm and most climbs in the Pyrenees have a section or two which is steeper than the profile suggests.
The eastern side of the Tourmalet, just before reaching La Mongie, is the perfect example of this. Just as the road passes through the tunnels is typical of how the Pyrenees likes to surprise you. It's less humid though and it's easier to breathe compared to the Alps plus there's the crazy Spanish fans to cheer up proceedings.
So how do those differences affect the guys still racing for the top ten?
Quite simply the riders who like to climb sitting down will be more comfortable in the Alps and those who do it en danseuse will suit the Pyrenees with its changes in gradient.
In the Alpine suited group you have Richie Porte and Sky team mate Geraint Thomas, Thibaut Pinot, Tejay van Garderen, Bauke Mollema, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Pierre Rolland, Jakob Fuglsang, Michal Kwiatkowski and if he recovers, Rui Costa. They prefer their climbing at a steady tempo.
The Pyrenees in theory ought to be better for Nibali though I can see him winning in the Alps as well, Valverde, the Ag2r pairing of Bardet and Peraud, Mikel Nieve, Chris Horner and Leopold König because they can provoke or cope with variations better and they need to get a chuff on because the TT will be a chore.
There are three other riders not to be forgotten for the mountains: Polka dot chaser Joaquim Rodriguez, Nicolas Roche and good old Tommy Voeckler. They sit in a separate category of trouble makers who could find themselves in an escape with any of the above GC guys. Then it's just a matter of, as Jensie would say, "Shut up legs."
I was thinking of what Garmin's Andrew Talansky was going through as he sat at the side of the road on stage 11 trying to make a decision. I can relate to that Tour de France experience and it's not a nice place to be and it's certainly not as some have suggested, 'a case of needing to man up and get on with it.' In my first Tour I completely lost the plot climbing the Col de Madeleine.
I was dropped from the lead group about halfway up and then gradually lost control of my breathing and then my emotions. The only solution was to stop, as it happened under the only tree for several kilometres, and try to regain my senses. If it hadn't been for my directeur sportif calming me down, removing the drama from the situation then I would probably have had to abandon. Even though I was far from being eliminated I just couldn't continue.
It took four or five minutes of just sitting there in the shade, gradually regaining normality before I could set off again and without the help of the guys in the team car I doubt I would have had enough life experience to know what to do.
No-one pressured me to continue and it wasn't easy but just like Andrew Talansky did, I thanked the guys in the team and the support staff for giving me the option of finishing that day. Toughening up wasn't mentioned. The Tour de France when it goes badly is as much an emotional challenge as it is physical.
- Robert Millar
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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