Tour de France 2015 Stage 17 preview: Digne-les-Bains - Pra-Loup, 161 km

The first of four Alpine stages reprises the route of a classic stage from Tour history

Who knows how the history of the Tour de France might have been different if the road to Pra Loup was made of better quality Tarmac?

In 1975, one of the most famous Tour moments of all time took place, on one of the long north-south switchbacks of the climb of Pra Loup. Eddy Merckx, the invincible five-time champion, was caught, passed, and left for dead by his French rival Bernard Thévenet. Merckx had attacked Thévenet over the top of the Col d’Allos, and built an advantage on the tricky descent, where he knew Thévenet was vulnerable. However, Merckx started to falter, and Thévenet started to close the gap. When he pulled up to Merckx, he saw that the road surface had melted in a long strip down the middle, just ahead. He jumped to one side of it, knowing that Merckx wouldn’t risk riding through the sticky bitumen to take his wheel, and rode away, into the yellow jersey, into the hearts of the French public, and into the annals of Tour history.

For the 40th anniversary of that event, the Tour returns, to cross the Col d’Allos and climb Pra Loup. Each climb has only been tackled once since 1975, and never in combination. A stage finished in Pra Loup in 1980, while the Tour made a single ascent of the Allos in 2000, in the same direction as in 1975, but with the stage finishing much further north, in Briançon.

2015 Tour de France stage 17 profile

Tactical explainer

It’s a frightening thought for the riders that this hard, hard stage is probably the easiest of the four days in the Alps. This stage will be a pivotal one, not necessarily for the time gaps at the end, but for what the result will say about the final shape of the Tour. We’re deep into the final week now, and the momentum of the contenders will be clear. Any late challenge for yellow has to start today.

The finishing climb today, despite its legendary status, is only second category, and the Allos, while high at 2,250 metres, is first category, and averages 5.5 per cent, which is relatively shallow. But there are two complications. First, that there are a few climbs early in the stage, which will only add to the fatigue already in the riders’ legs. Secondly, the descent of the Allos is an absolute brute. It’s narrow and technical, but fast, with few hairpins to break up the ordeal. It’s the kind of terrain a rider like Vincenzo Nibali could thrive in.

Greg LeMond's View

“They say that the north side of the Allos is one of the most dangerous descents in France. I’ve not done it but I’ve heard that…

“I don’t know the Southern Alps at all, but I’ll do them this year when I’m at the Tour. There are only three climbs that go over 2,000 metres this year, the Allos being one of them; Quintana, who’s used to those altitudes, will be in his element. I’d expect him, Froome and Contador to have the edge on Nibali on the way up the Allos - but then maybe Nibali can overturn any disadvantage on the way down.”

Stats & Facts

  • Pra Loup hosts the Tour for the third time, and the race crosses the Col d’Allos for the third time.
  • The Col de Colle St Michel, the first significant Alpine climb of the 2015 Tour, appears on the route for the very first time. It’s 11 kilometres long, with an average gradient of 5.2 per cent.
  • There are three Alpine summit finishes in the 2015 Tour, the most since 1996.

Schedule

0km Start Digne les Bains 12:45
40km Cat 3 climb Col des Lèques 13:52
67km Cat 3 climb Col de Toutes Aures 14:42
96km Cat 2 climb Col de la Colle St Michel 15:21
111km Sprint Beauvezer 15:39
139km Cat 1 climb Col d’Allos 16:34
161km Cat 2 climb/Finish Pra Loup 17:04

The text in this preview first appeared in the July edition of ProCycling magazine

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