There are several candidates for the hardest stage of the 2016 Tour. Stage 9 to Andorra has more climbs than this one, as does stage 15 to Culoz. Stages 19 and 20, finishing in St Gervais-Mont Blanc and Morzine, have the same number of climbs as this, and the same designations – an HC, two first-cats and a second-cat.
But stage 8 to Luchon still stands out as a uniquely tough challenge. Firstly, the climbs are packed together, while all the other stages except stage 15 have a bit of breathing space between the climbs. Secondly, while stage 15 only breaches 1,000m altitude once, this stage has four climbs above 1,500m, including the Tourmalet at 2,115m. This is the most intense stretch of mountain climbing in the 2016 Tour.
The route is a riff on the original Pyrenean “Circle of Death”, which first appeared in the 1910 Tour, the first time the race went into the high mountains. That year saw the riders cross the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque on the D618/D918 road which joins Luchon in the east with Laruns in the west. The nickname came from the toughness of the route.
For 2016, there’s been a tweak. Going from west to east, the organisers have skipped the Aubisque and started with the Tourmalet. Then, instead of going back over the Aspin, the riders will pass the Lac de Payolle and continue up the Hourquette d’Ancizan, a tough climb. Then comes the Val Louron Azet, and finally back up to the D618 for the climb of the Peyresourde and descent to Luchon, which is fast and swooping.
Although it’s not a summit finish, the toughness of the route and the speed of the final descent should ensure that it’s one of the crucial GC days of the entire Tour.
Robert Millar: Basically the reverse of the 2013 stage where Movistar eliminated Porte from the GC and left Chris Froome worrying all day. There’s the not-so-small matter of the Tourmalet and it’s the long straight side. Oh joy! For the ambitious, there are two options: go early for mountain points or wait for the big GC fight on the last climb. At least the descent into Luchon is stress-free, which is just as well as this is an epic day’s racing and everyone will be knackered.