Along with Flanders, the Basque Country, Tuscany and, recent history might teach us, Yorkshire, Brittany is one of the true heartlands of cycling. The Tour always draws huge crowds, but there will be a noticeable increase in the fervour and intensity of support in Brittany, where the locals proudly wave the eye-catching black and white flag of the region.
First things first, while the composition of the early break in a Tour stage is always a delicate balance of luck, motivation, circumstance and ambition, there WILL be a Bretagne-Seché Environnement rider in today’s break. The Breton team had a hard time at their debut Tour in 2014, which didn’t go anywhere near Brittany, but with more experience and the added motivation of shining in front of their fans, expect them to race aggressively on their home roads this year. Today is likely to be the biggest thing that’s ever happened to the team, win or lose.
The terrain today might look straightforward – apart from the third-category climb at the finish, there’s only one other categorised climb, mid-stage. But the road will be constantly dipping and rising, especially in the second half. The stage comes at the end of a very hard opening phase of the Tour. The yellow jersey contenders face the impossible choice – maximising time gains on the climb, while trying to save themselves for the team time trial the next day.
The stage is likely to come down to the painful slow-motion sprint up the final two kilometre climb above the town of Mûr-de-Bretagne. It’s a difficult climb to judge – not quite as steep as the Mur de Huy in stage three, but longer. It’s also dead straight for the first kilometre and a half, which makes it psychologically harder – riders on the limit often break climbs down to smaller targets, like the next bend, but that’s not possible here.
The straightness also makes the pace more difficult to control. On a bend, the rider at the front can take the best line and regulate the pace of the riders behind. On the Côte de Mur de Bretagne, the rider in front is horribly exposed. The climb is also steeper at the bottom, meaning that it will be easy to go too hard too soon and die over the final 500 metres. Patience is a virtue on a climb like this. It’s the kind of ascent riders can completely empty themselves on, but the skill is in timing that so that this doesn’t happen with 200 metres still to ride.
It’s a finish for puncheurs with a bit more endurance than the Classics specialists, but who also have the street smarts to fight their way into position before the start of the climb. In 2011, while the winner on the climb, Cadel Evans, also went on to win the Tour, it wasn’t crucial in terms of time gains and losses. But a strong headwind blowing down the climb neutralised the gradient a little. If nothing else, the climb will show who has good form at the end of a hard first week.
Greg LeMond's view
“I think I raced this finish once in a criterium. I can see this being a finish for someone like Sagan. The roads in Brittany are lumpy but you shouldn’t really get caught out unless the weather is doing something crazy. The favourites will be up there, and there’ll no doubt be a dozen crashes before the bottom of that final climb… but I can’t see it having a major impact on the general classification. The hill itself should suit Contador and Froome; they’re both pretty explosive. I’m also glad that time bonuses have been brought back for stages like this.”
Stats & Facts
- Mûr de Bretagne has hosted one other Tour stage finish, in the 2011 race, when Cadel Evans outsprinted Alberto Contador.
- It’s a good climb for Sylvains. The Tour also crossed the Côte de Mûr de Bretagne during the 2006 and 2008 Tours. First over the top in 2006: Sylvain Calzati. First over in 2008: Sylvain Chavanel.
- In 2011, a group of 10 riders contested the finish. Three more riders conceded six seconds, 28 riders conceded eight seconds.
0km Start Rennes 12:40
99.5km Cat 4 climb Côte du Mont Bel-Air 15:22
108.5km Sprint Gare de Moncontour 15:35
181.5km Finish Mûr de Bretagne 17:19
The text in this preview first appeared in the July edition of Procycling magazine