Surely the sprinters won’t let this one pass by, especially if Rodez, two days ago, didn’t work out for them. This is definitely their last chance for a bunch sprint until Paris, with the Alps in the offing.
Perhaps the presence of the Col de l’Escrinet, two thirds of the way through the stage, is an omen. The Tour tackled this second-category ascent just before the finish in Aubenas (also the site of today’s bonus sprint) in 2009, and Mark Cavendish shocked the cycling world by staying with the leaders over the top of the long but well surfaced and steady climb, then easily winning the sprint. This year, they’re going in the opposite direction over the climb, but even if it’s a little harder from the south west side than the east, there are 60 kilometres to the finish line in Valence – enough time to chase down breaks and engineer a bunch kick.
Before the Escrinet, and the plunge down to the Rhône valley, the stage starts high, in Mende, climbs even higher, up on to the plateau of the Ardèche, then has a long descent, almost 30 kilometres, down to Aubenas. It’s a complete day off for the GC riders, the break is likely to be watching its back right from the start, and the entertainment for the day is mostly going to come from watching the sprinters’ teams still having to work hard to keep things under control over and beyond the Escrinet. If the sprinters do blow it, they’ve got to contemplate the prospect of climbing 16 mountains of second category and above before they get their next chance in Paris.
By this point in the Tour, breaks tend to be a little less structured and regulated than in the first week, when escapees always seem to number four or five riders, and none really capable of winning the stage. But in these kind of stages, when fewer teams really want to spend all day chasing a break, and with quite a lot of teams still having won nothing, the breaks consist of more riders. More riders in a break means more chance of success, mainly because with more of them to share the work, they get less fatigued than if there is only a rolling quartet of riders.
On the other hand breaks are less cohesive when there are more members, and there are more agendas at play. The terrain is also harder than the first, gernerally flat, week. If a break of seven or nine riders goes away today, they’ll work well until Aubenas, but the better climbers may want to ditch some of their companions on the Escrinet, in order to increase the odds of them winning. Conversely, they’ll then have less chance of holding off pursuers, because of the reduction in firepower. All these factors will come into play on a stage like today, but it would be a big surprise if there isn’t a bunch sprint in Valence
Robert Millar's View
“As close as an active rest day you are going to get in this Tour if you're a GC contender. On paper it's all downhill to the finish by the Rhone so what's not to like? Well the second category climb of l'Escrinet will be a nasty reminder to the legs that there is a race on and someone will want to drop the sprinters. Then with the Mistral wind blowing up the river valley it'll be mega rapid into Valence. Throw in a bit of side-wind in the finale and maybe it won't be so stress-free after all. Take it easy but pay attention as Peter Post would say. No I didn't understand either.”
Stats & Facts
- Valence hosts a Tour stage finish for the second time, following on from 1996, when Colombian rider Chepe Gonzalez took the win.
- Maximum number of flat sprint stages (including this one) in the 2015 Tour: six. This compares with eight last year, seven in 2013, eight in 2012, eight in 2011 and seven in 2010.
- Average gap for a winning break in a transition stage over the last three Tours: 10 minutes. It’s doubtful today’s break will be given a lead like that.
0km Start Mende 13:00
9.5km Cat 3 climb Côte de Badaroux 13:18
69.5km Cat 4 climb Col du Bez 14:41
73.5km Cat 4 climb Col de la Croix de Bauzon 14:47
108km Sprint Aubenas 15:3 6
126.5km Cat 2 climb Col de l’Escrinet 16:01
183km Finish Valence 17:20
The text in this preview first appeared in the July edition of ProCycling magazine