Following two long transfer stages south to central Limoges, the Tour de France heads into the mountains on Wednesday for stage 5 to the Massif Central ski resort of Le Lioran. After days days of flat roads, leadouts, power sprinting and a close overall classification, the 216km will shake up the Tour de France and allow the overall contenders to rise to the top.
Race organiser ASO has looked to innovate the race route in recent years and an early visit to the Massif Central allows them to include an extra range of mountains before the Pyrenees and Alps. The first mountain stage traditionally coincides with the second week of the race but the overall contenders will have to be ready and show their form significantly earlier this year. Some have tweaked their final preparation accordingly but the Massif Central could expose which team leaders will not go on to fight for overall victory.
The Massif Central sits in France's heartland but is a barren, sparsely populated part of the hexagon. The first Tour de France was held in 1903 but the race did not visit the Massif Central until 1950 and not properly until a year later, with a stage finish in Clermont-Ferrand. The Tour has not been above 1500m altitude this early in the race since 1979, which was arguably the toughest-ever start to the race because of three Pyrenean stages in the opening four days.
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The stage from Limoges to Le Lioran arguably sits between a hilly stage and a medium mountain day but it will hurt.
The first half is on easier rolling roads between the Creuse and Correze departments. Things get serious and hiller after 133km of racing at Pont-de Saint-Project as the stage enters the Massif Central. It is a region of extinct volcano and Puy lava domes and craters. The twisting roads between host the quartet of climbs of the stage.
The Cote de Puy-Saint-Mary kicks things off and acts as warm-up for the tougher four climbs in the 36km finale. It is 6.8km long at a gradual 3.9 per cent. Indeed it is only a third category climb. A gradual rise into the Massif Central follows, with the Col de Neronne (7.1 per cent at 3 per cent) perhaps ending the hopes of an early breakaway staying clear.
The serious climbs begin just after and it is here, in the final 36km, that the peloton will be shaken out and the overall contenders emerge. The Pas de Payrol is only 5.4km long but has an average gradient of 8.1 per cent. Its early slopes climbs at 5 per cent but the final two kilometres at a far steeper 11percent - perfect for an audacious early attack. At an altitude of 1589m, the Pas de Payrol is the highest road pass in the Massif Central, sitting below the scenic volcanic pyramid of the Puy Mary.
The climb leads to an 11km descent leading quickly to the 4.4km Col du Perthus. It is short but steep, at 7.9 per and is the second of three sharks teeth in the finale. A two-step descent takes the race to the foot of the final climb up to Le Lioran. The gradient gradually ramps up, with the final 3.3km at 5.8%.
The finish comes after a twisting three kilometre descent, with a final kick up to the line in the ski resort's car park.
"The Massif Central is difficult; there are lots of small climbs, and loads of possibilities to attack," Bernhard Thevenet predicted on French television. He knows what he's talking about, having won the Tour de France twice, even defeating Eddy Merckx in 1975.
"A medium mountain stage is harder to read and harder to control, I think, than the high mountains. More things can happen; there are three late climbs and there's going to be a real fight."
The finale of the stage is hard enough to ensure that the GC riders are at least drawn out of their shells and forced to reveal their true form. We can expect a change in the hierarchy in the peloton and it will be fascinating to see if Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) tries to defend the yellow jersey. If he is distanced the yellow jersey will dangle at the finish line, like an enticing prize for the overall contenders. Chris Froome (Team Sky) is well placed in fifth place, 18 seconds down on Sagan, but Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Fabio Aru (Astana) Pierre Rolland (Cannondale-Drapac), Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep), Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and others are all in the same time.
The classification will surely be very different come Wednesday evening.
What the riders think:
Chris Froome (Team Sky): Tomorrow it's a tricky final and there will definitely be more action from the GC guys. We've not looked at the finish, I've only seen it on paper. I think it's harder than stage 2 but the objective isn't really to gain time. I'll stay at the front and try not to lose time. That might mean I end up gaining time. We'll see. Valverde shouldn't get dropped on a finish like that and if anything he'll be up there fighting for the win. He'll be the main favourite, or Alaphilippe maybe.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC): I'm really excited to head to the hills and get the GC sorted out a bit more. I think it will be a little less nervous and we'll get a sense of who's going well and who's not. Richie and I did the recon together and it's a tricky stage. It's not going to be as hard as the Pyrenees but it will shake things up. You're not going to see Sagan and Cavendish up there.
Fabio Aru (Astana): Considering that stage 2 was pretty aggressive, I think that the first mountain stage will be similar. All the big teams will want to be at the front. The stage profile seems pretty tough; the roads in the finale are pretty narrow with climbs and descents. I don't know it but we'll see what happens. We'll be ready and will try not to lose any time the other contenders.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ): Everybody is waiting for the Le Lioran stage because it will shake up the GC hierarchy and put things right for the overall contenders.