As the 2018 Tour de France heads towards the end of its second week, the race moves from the Alps to the Massif Central for what is predicted to be a weekend for breakaways. So far, the main breakaway of the day has only succeeded in winning one stage, with Julian Alaphilippe's efforts into Le Grand-Bornand on stage 10. But the coming two stages should be a prime opportunity for the escapees to take the honours.
First up on Saturday is a lumpy stage 14 from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Mende, which features rolling terrain followed by four classified climbs at no higher than second category. The final ascent in Mende – the Côte de la Croix Neuve – may only be deemed to be a category 2 climb, but it's no joke: while only three kilometres in length, it averages a whisker over 10 per cent in gradient. The top of the climb comes 1.5km from the finish, allowing the weaker climbers to get back on, or the stronger time triallists to potentially take a few seconds.
Team Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal expects any escapees to be successful, but it won’t be a day off for the general classification riders.
"It will be the breakaway that goes for the stage win, but behind them it will be a fight for the GC," Portal told Cyclingnews. "On the short uphill in Mende, someone is going to try. Sometimes, if you can get 10 seconds on this climb, it's better than nothing. So, for us, it's going to be a case of being very focused on trying not to lose any time, and maybe gaining time."
The Mende finale last appeared at the 2015 Tour de France with Steve Cummings surprising a duelling Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet. Cummings had been dropped by the two flyweight climbers, but his power worked to his advantage as he tracked them down over the top of the ascent. Back in the main pack, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana came over the top together, but Froome was able to add another second to his lead over the Colombian with a faster sprint.
Given his finishing move on top of Alpe d'Huez, Froome's Sky teammate Geraint Thomas could potentially pull out a couple of seconds on the line with his superior sprint. Perhaps third-placed Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) will utilise his time trialling skills to eke out a few of his own as the finish flattens out. As Portal says, 10 seconds is better than nothing at all.
A new climb
The Massif Central journey continues on Sunday with a 181-kilometre ride from Millau to Carcassonne. The three classified climbs – a third, a second and a first category one, in that order – are spread across the parcours. The final ascent of the Pic de Nore comes with just over 50 kilometres remaining before a long descent and a flat run to the line, with a final flick upwards before the line.
The 12.3km-long category 1 Pic de Nore is a new addition to the Tour de France, with narrow roads and a long drag to the top with an average gradient of 6.3 per cent. There is one ramp of just over nine per cent, but much of the climb is a steady grind. French breakaway specialist Lilian Calmejane, of Direct Energie, is from France's Tarn department, where the climb is situated, and thinks that it could surprise a few people.
"This is a famous col in my region, but it's not a famous Tour de France climb," Calmejane told Cyclingnews. "We climb it by a small, forest road, so I don't think anybody knows this climb very well, and I don't think that even the GC riders will have reconned this stage because it's a transition stage, so they could be surprised by it.
"It makes for a difficult stage, but I don't think it will be a particularly busy day for the riders chasing the overall classification. It's more a day for a breakaway, and for riders like me, I hope."
Portal is also from the south of France, from the nearby department of Gers, in the larger region of Occitanie. While Team Sky did not go to recon the stage, as Calmejane predicted, Portal has first-hand knowledge of the Pic de Nore, having climbed it several years ago. He believes that someone like Peter Sagan could take the stage if he chooses to go on the attack, and says that the general classification riders are unlikely to take too much out of the day.
"It would be quite complicated," he said when asked if any of the GC contenders could feasibly take time. "The Pic de Nore is a climb I did when I was young, and is part of the Montagne Noire range. It's not an easy climb: it's got rough tarmac, and if the weather continues to be hot, then it could be terrible.
"It could be a good stage for Sagan because if he decides to go in the break, then he could win. He could use the team to drop some sprinters because it's pretty hard, and then, from the top, I think there are only around 40 kilometres to go, but that's just enough to possibly stay away. The race could be pretty full on from the bottom of the climb."
After three tough days in the high mountains, followed by a sprint day, stage hunters like Calmejane are eager for a piece of the pie. The 25-year-old, who won a stage at last year's Tour, has already been on the attack numerous times in this year's race, but he has been eyeing up this weekend in particular.
"I'm quite tired, like everybody in the peloton," Calmejane admitted. "But the stages on Saturday and Sunday are two stages that I've reconned and in fact already know very well. They suit me much better than the big mountains."
Team Sky hold the first two positions in the overall classification, with Thomas holding the yellow jersey with a 1:39 advantage over Froome. Sunweb's Dumoulin is very close behind, only 11 seconds down on Froome.
At the start of the Tour, Sky had said that they were 100 per cent behind Froome but Thomas' performance has earned him equal billing with the defending champion. Portal says neither has more support than the other, and that having two riders at the top of the GC is the best possible scenario.
"For us, it's a pretty good situation: we have two cards to play. I always say that, but it's true," Portal told Cyclingnews. "Maybe at the beginning it was more about Froome, but now, to be honest, Thomas has shown that he's super-strong, and who knows how long he can hold it? He doesn't even know.
"It's the same for Froome, coming from the Giro. Who knows how long he can perform? He could pay the price. At the moment, it looks pretty good because we are in first and second, but let's see what the road brings. We need to support them both," said Portal.