After three bunch sprints and a team time trial, the 2018 Tour de France has changed its tone on the rolling roads of Brittany. Wednesday’s ‘Ardennes-esque’ stage to Quimper saw a nervy peloton stretched on narrow roads and sharp inclines, but the first true test in the battle for the yellow jersey comes on Thursday on the Mûr-de-Bretagne, also known as the Alpe d’Huez of Brittany.
Of course, the 2km climb bears little resemblance to the 21 hairpins and near-2,000-metre altitude of that mythical Alpine ascent, but it nevertheless stands out in Brittany – both literally and figuratively. Cycling is part of the fabric in this region in the north-western corner of France, which has its own culture and a strong sense of regional identity and pride among its people, the Bretons. With no real mountains in sight, Mûr-de-Bretagne has become something of an icon.
“We have our own Alpe d’Huez in the Mûr-de-Bretagne,” said Warren Barguil (Fortuneo-Samsic) in Tuesday’s L’Equipe, in a group interview with the Bretons present at the Tour. “If one of us wins there, he’ll be royalty, much more than if he wins at Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux.”
Like the double ascent of Alpe d’Huez in 2015, Thursday’s stage 7 will take the peloton up Mûr-de-Bretagne twice in the final 20 kiometres, the first ascent taking the riders up to and over the finish line before a 14km loop round to take it on again in what will be a lung-busting grind to the line.
The climb starts out on a wide country road that somewhat disguises the severity with which the road pitches uphill. The gradients hit 10 per cent and pretty much stay there for the first kilometre, before easing slightly in the next few hundred metres and then becoming more gentle in sight of the line. The official figures are 2km in length with an average gradient of 6.9 per cent.
“It’s a tough climb, but above all very hard at the bottom,” Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale) tells Cyclingnews, the Frenchman having been victorious the last time the Tour finished at Mûr-de-Bretagne, in 2015.
“After that it levels out slightly but even that doesn’t make it easier because you have the lactic acid and the fatigue quickly accumulating. In order to try and win, you then have to try and break the rhythm to accelerate, when you’re already pretty close to the limit. That’s the hardest part of it, finding a way to accelerate.”
General classification hit-out
The first nine stages of this Tour de France contain a number of pitfalls for the yellow jersey contenders, not least the cobbles this coming Sunday, but the open hostilities are largely reserved for the mountains in the second half of the race.
Stage 7, running 181km from Brest, contains little else of real difficulty, but the Mur nevertheless represents an important juncture in the race. It’s not going to be make or break, but it could nevertheless see some seconds won and lost, and will surely provide more of a glimpse of who might have the legs to impose themselves later in the race.
“I think we’ll already see some interesting gaps. We’ll get a glimpse of who’s in good shape and then we can expect some small gaps. The gaps will come about more through weakness than strength, if someone’s not on a good day, for example,” Team Sky DS Nicolas Portal told Cyclingnews.
“We’ve had plenty of flat, and the team time trial and everything, so the first hard climb like that can be very complicated. I think there’ll be some small gaps but all the main guys should come in more or less in the same group.”
When Vuillermoz won in 2015 he attacked on the steep part before settling back into the group and then kicking again once Chris Froome (Team Sky) had lined out the thinning bunch. Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) finished five seconds back and a group of 25 of the main players finished a further five seconds behind, even if Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) lost time as part of a disappointing Tour.
The previous appearance saw Cadel Evans pip Alberto Contador to the line in 2011, and although no big names lost more than eight seconds, one of those flagging was Andy Schleck, from whom Evans would snatch yellow on the penultimate day.
“In principle it won’t be a critical stage. We saw the Mur three years ago and the differences were minimal – less than the bonus seconds on the line,” said Movistar DS José Luis Arrieta.
“It’s a day where Alejandro has options, but the priority is to get through the day without any complications.”
Bonus seconds and yellow jersey
The double dose of Mûr-de-Bretagne poses its own unique challenge. The riders will already have one ascent in the legs and lungs and will barely be able to recover on the rolling but largely downhill run back around to the foot of the climb.
Another factor to take into account is the ‘point bonus’, the new initiative in place at this year’s Tour whereby bonus seconds are on offer at designated points towards the end of the first nine stages, much like an intermediate sprint without the points. Here it is positioned three kilometres beyond the top of the climb, after a two-kilometre descent and another steep uphill kilometre to Saint-Mayeux.
The offering of three, two, and one seconds for the first three across the line may not be decisive, and so far the general classification riders haven’t shown any real interest, but Wednesday’s stage showed that they could play a role with the non-GC riders who are still up towards the top of the general classification.
“If a guy is strong enough to make a break there, I think that would be interesting,” says Vuillermoz. “Even more so given that this year there are two ascents, which will cream out the peloton.”
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) hit out at the bonus point on Wednesday and thus moved to within six seconds of Greg Van Avermaet’s overall lead. The Frenchman may be minded to go again after the first ascent of Mûr-de-Bretagne, but equally may save himself for the final ascent, with a stage win – which carries 10 bonus seconds – likely to propel him into yellow.
Alaphilippe was the name Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) reached for in his post-stage press conference when asked who would win on the Mur. If that came true, the Belgian would need to finish at least third to stay in yellow. Alaphilippe’s Quick-Step teammate Philippe Gilbert, at three seconds is also a threat, as is Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), fourth at five seconds.
Elsewhere there are plenty of candidates for the stage win, if not yellow, not least Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), a five-time winner of La Flèche Wallonne, and Martin, a three-time podium finisher.