A short but intense Pyrenean stage brings down the curtain on the 2021 Tour de France mountains this year, as the peloton faces its second hors categorie finish in as many days.
In straight terms of climbing, Wednesday's stage 17 paints a harsher picture, with a total of 4,300 metres of vertical gain compared to 3,300 metres on stage 18. But so much climbing packed into a stage of just 129.7 kilometres, plus the fact it is the last day in the mountains could render the fifth Pyrenean stage at least equally difficult as its immediate predecessor.
Any climber still with any energy left in the tank knows there is only one chance left to strike before Paris and this is it. The words ‘nothing to lose’ would be the perfect subtitle for any description of this stage.
The brevity of stage 18 also makes it much more of a nightmare for the non-climbers. Points jersey leader Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and the few other out-and-out sprinters remaining in the 2021 Tour de France will likely be able to fight for the hot spot sprint at kilometre 63. But that’ll be as good as it gets for them.
The 50-odd kilometres of climbing between there and the finish, combined with a relatively small margin for the gruppetto to make the time cut on what will likely be a fraught, fast-moving stage, will almost certainly make it the key remaining obstacle for Cavendish and his sprint rivals between here and Paris.
Luz Ardiden also effectively remains the final chance for the overall contenders to pour climbing-flavoured petrol on the spluttering embers of this year's GC bonfire. And it is very hard to see anybody take on Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at this point in the game.
However, if Pogačar did suddenly fall apart it wouldn’t be the first time that a seemingly dominant racer has suddenly struggled in the final hour before victory. As stage 16 winner Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe) put it when asked about the other contenders’ chances of beating Pogačar on Tuesday, "never say never".
What makes ‘mission impossible’ marginally more feasible, perhaps, is the presence of the Col du Tourmalet immediately before Luz Ardiden. A much more familiar Tour de France col and part of the first-ever Pyrenean stage way back in 1910, the Tourmalet has the honour of being the most frequently used mountain pass of the race, tackled no fewer than 84 times. That’s ten more than the next two on the list, the Aubisque and Aspin.
Having been climbed so frequently, the Tourmalet hardly needs any introduction. But it’s worth noting that on Thursday there is only a small fourth-category ascent, the Cote de Loucrop at kilometre 54, to loosen up the riders' legs before they move onto the Tourmalet itself. This is the only time in the Tour there are two hors categorie ascents on a single stage. When one of them’s as hard as the Tourmalet, that’s never going to be straightforward.
This time the race goes up the Tourmalet’s west side, which is a whopping 17 kilometres long and at 7.3 per cent gradiets, with the steepest sections before, during and after the infamously unpretty ski station of La Mongie.
Some riders might argue that the eastern approach, with relentless portions of nine and 10 per cent closer to the top of the Tourmalet is the harder way up, but frankly, at this stage of the game, both sound equally daunting. And what doesn’t change, of course, is the Tourmalet’s altitude gain, peaking out at 2,115 metres above sea level.
For the record, the Tourmalet is the second-highest paved pass in the French Pyrenees, although two climbs tackled recently by the 2021 Tour, the Col de Portet, at 2,215 metres, is higher in France, and the absolute record for Europe belongs to the Puerto de Envalira, at 2,408 metres above sea level. For anybody who suffers at altitude, it is becoming such a familiar experience this week that it will hardly make it any less damaging.
What will hurt the entire peloton regardless of their capacity for racing at altitude is the unnervingly short distance between the foot of the Tourmalet’s descent and the start of the Luz Ardiden. Just a few kilometres separate the two, making it much harder for any breakaways to be brought back by anything but the best climbing teams.
Luz Ardiden itself is perhaps not quite as tough as the Tourmalet, and its history is far shorter, with just eight previous ascents. But what it lacks in quantity it makes up in quality on almost all of the previous climbs. Since it made its debut in 1985, it has offered memorable moments of racing.
Known as the ‘Spanish mountain’ because climbers from that country have won five of the eight previous ascents, it’s ironic that one of the most dramatic ascents was scratched from the record books. In 2003, Lance Armstrong tangled with a spectator’s musette bag and Iban Mayo first saw the American fall heavily. But Armstrong then launched a spectacular comeback on the ascent’s 30 hairpin bends to claim a solo victory and all but seal victory in the Tour.
Armstrong’s elimination from the results sheets gives extra emphasis to Spain’s predominance in the winner’s table. Pedro Delgado opened the series with a victory in a mist-enshrouded Luz Ardiden in 1985, Miguel Indurain won there in 1990 in his precursor to five Tours and Roberto Laiseka claimed a victory in 2001 for Euskaltel-Euskadi that represented the breakthrough of the Basque team in the Tour de France.
“I could leave the Tour right now, I can retire from cycling” Laiseka, said at the time, “That stage is part of me.”
“I attacked for the first time on the Tourmalet with Stefano Garzelli, but they caught us. And then just before the climb started, I went away again, passed every rider ahead of me from an early break. The last one was Vladmir Belli. And with three kilometres to go, even though it was such a tough climb, I could enjoy every second of that climb.”
Luz Ardiden is not a climb with too many changes of pace and oscillates mainly between six and 10 per cent on what is mostly a well-surface road. But its 30 hairpin bends, nine more than the Alpe d’Huez, make it a gruelling climb. There’s another challenge: after starting out heavily wooded, two-thirds of the way up the Luz Ardiden climb, the road abruptly moves above the treeline. Suddenly the ski station is visible, and the distance still required to reach it.
“That can do your head in when you look up, and if it’s a headwind that can be hard because it’s so exposed, but actually by then the climb’s not so bad,” Laiseka, visiting the Tour as a fan again this year, tells Cyclingnews.
“It’s a climb with main two parts. The first three or four kilometres aren’t so hard, so they don’t really count, it’s like an introduction.”
“Then it gets into eight or nine per cent for most of it and the last three or four, at seven per cent don’t tend to do so much harm. The position you’re in on the climb by that point will normally be the result you’ll get when you cross the finishing line.”
The multiple hairpins, he says, “are actually pretty good if you’re not feeling great. They steady out the gradient a bit and you can ease back a bit.”
For him, in any case, Luz Ardiden was the most special moment of his career and with no trophy, just an aluminium Coca-Cola bottle as a prize, he still keeps the dried out flowers from his winner’s bouquet in his living room.
“I’d lost 25 or 30 minutes the day before;” Laiseka recalls. “But that stage you had the Basque fans on the roadside, it was the hardest stage on the Pyrenees, we were a team that was only in the Tour on a wildcard. That win was the one that mattered the most.”
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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