Stage 9: Saint-Étienne – Brioude
Date: July 14, 2019
Distance: 170.5 km
Stage type: Hilly
Today's stage is the biggest indication so far that Christian Prudhomme and his route-plotting team have designed this race with Romain Bardet at the centre of their thoughts, although there are far more significant ones not far too ahead. It's Bastille Day and for the first time ever the Tour will be finishing in Brioude, the Ag2r leader's home town.
This is an intriguing stage, another that offers encouragement to breakaway riders, Classics specialists, puncheurs in the Julian Alaphilippe mould, and even some sprinters. Like the day before, it rises and falls incessantly, although not as fiercely. There's a very savage ascent in the form of the Mur d'Aurec-sur-Loire – 3.2km at 11% – but it crops up too early to have any lasting effect. While sure to string out and perhaps even shred the peloton, the dropped riders have plenty of ground ahead on which they can recoup their deficit.
That is unlikely to be the case, however, when they reach the last of the day's three categorised climbs, the third-category Côte de Saint-Just. Although far from the most severe of obstacles – its 3.6km average 7.2% – this is another of the point-bonus. If the break has been reeled in, the lure of those bonus seconds is sure to produce a substantial increase in pace at the front of the peloton. The stage winner should be among those in the vanguard, as from the summit the road runs mostly downhill for 12 kilometres into the finish.
Could Bardet provide the fairytale finish? Although he'll know these roads better than anyone else in the field, the science of Grand Tour racing suggests that he will save his resources for a few days yet, happy to track the riders equipped with more explosive acceleration and daredevil descending skills. Julian Alaphilippe once again perhaps.