The clock is ticking for Nairo Quintana et al to seriously attack and trouble Chris Froome and his seemingly impregnable Team Sky team at this Tour de France. However stage 15 over the Grand Colombier to Culoz at least offers the raw materials for anyone prepared to tilt at the windmill.
When the 2016 Tour de France route was unveiled last October, this 160-kilometre leg through the Jura, with its six climbs and sinuous descents, must have seemed the ideal day for an ambush on Team Sky, much like the one the team weathered on the road to Luchon in 2013.
The opening two weeks of this Tour may well have dampened some of those expectations. In years past, Team Sky have dealt comfortably with set-piece mountaintop finishes where power output trumps all, but struggled on more unruly terrain – think, for instance, of the team’s difficult relationship with the Giro d’Italia and Tirreno-Adriatico.
But to date at this year’s Tour, Team Sky and Froome have done some of their best work where their rivals might normally have expected to benefit, such as in the Massif Central or on the descent off the Col du Peyresourde. Sunday’s trek through the Jura, however, is relentless, and – provided their rivals are willing to take up the baton in turn – could prove the sternest test of Team Sky’s collective strength to date.
A stage of two halves
At first glance, stage 15 is a difficult one to define, made up of something of a hotchpotch of climbs. The first 80 kilometres includes the kind of punchy terrain that offers an early breakaway every chance of surviving to the finish. That is certainly the opinion of Adam Yates (Orica-Bike Exchange), who believes a move of 20 riders could form there and divide up the spoils amongst them.
The day of climbing begins with the category 1 Col du Berthand (6km at 8.1%) after 23 kilometres, followed by the category 2 Col du Sappel (8.8km at 5.6%) and the category 3 Col de Pisseloup (4.9km at 5.8%), and later by the category 3 Col de la Rochette (5.1km at 5.4%).
There is scarcely a metre of flat in these opening 80km, as the road winds its way across the contours of the Jura, making the race very difficult to control. Competition to enter the day’s early break will be ferocious and Team Sky will be vetting every move closely lest a danger man slip out of their grasp – but they will be aware, too, that overzealous policing here might leave Froome isolated come the day’s principal obstacles on the mighty Grand Colombier.
Setting out from Lochieu and climbing for 12.8 kilometres to 1,501 metres above sea level, the Grand Colombier has an average gradient of 6.8% and something of an oddity in Tour de France terms – an hors categorie climb outside of the Alps or the Pyrenees. A staple of the Tour de l’Ain and regular of the Tour de l’Avenir over the years, the Grand Colombier only made its Tour de France debut in 2012, when Thomas Voeckler led over the top from the other side.
As if to make up for lost time, the Tour sees fit to visit the Grand Colombier twice on the same day this year. After a sweeping descent to the finish town of Culoz, the peloton will double back towards the Grand Colombier and climb it from a separate approach – the dramatic Lacets du Grand Colombier.
Although the riders won’t make a full ascent of the mountain – they climb to 891 metres before swinging back for the finish in Culoz – the Lacets du Grand Colombier offers a stiff test. At 8.4 kilometres in length at an average gradient of 7.6%, the category 1 climb comes just 14 kilometres from the line. It snakes up the side of the mountain in spectacular fashion and the technical descent offers a willing attacker – Romain Bardet, perhaps – the test the sangfroid of the other podium contenders.
Possible actors or only bit players?
But while the stage is set with a shark’s tooth stage profile, it remains to be seen if the principal actors are sure of their roles.
Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) is the closest to Froome on GC, 1:47 behind, but one wonders if the Dutchman is more focused on preserving a podium place than truly attempting to wrest yellow from Froome.
"It was a good day to recover – a silence before the storm tomorrow" Mollema said after Saturday’s low-key run north from Montélimar. "Tomorrow is another very important day; it will be a day of focus to not lose any time."
Third-placed Adam Yates, 2:45 down, was similarly modest in his public declarations ahead of the entry into the Jura.
"If I have good legs, I’ll try to get away and pick up some seconds," he said.
All year, meanwhile, Quintana has insisted that his Tour hopes are pinned on the high Alps in the third week, but after slipping to 2:59 behind Froome in Friday’s time trial – and, more damningly, failing to lay a glove on him with his attacks on Mont Ventoux – he is dire need of some kind of spark with which to ignite a real challenge.
"There are still a lot of mountains and I will try to attack, like I always have," Quintana insisted. "I hope my legs respond for me to do it. We’re going to try everything."
Today would seem like the place to start.