The climax of the Tour de France is fast approaching and the opportunities to make up time are diminishing for the GC contenders. Arguably the stage that could cause the most damage or reap most reward is today’s second time trial of the race from Sallanches to Megeve. Two very hard days in the Alps are still to come but nobody will be saving anything as they go all out on this short 17-kilometre stage.
Nestled in the Alps, it is a tricky time trial. It is not a pure mountain time trial, as it has been billed, but it is still an extremely difficult test, nonetheless. Speaking to Cyclingnews earlier in the week, Richie Porte described it as similar to the Paris-Nice Col d’Eze time trial, one that he has claimed victory on twice. There is some truth to that, with its flatter start and a downhill section to the finish, but stage 18 of the Tour de France will be a much sterner test than anything seen in March.
It begins with a long, flat section of four kilometres before a sharp hairpin bend onto the Cote de Domancy - the first of two climbs. This is by far the toughest part of the course and the reason why Porte and many of the general classification competitors will opt to ride their standard road bike with clip-on aero bars. Although, Porte expects some to use the full TT set-ups. The Domancy averages 9.4 per cent over just 2.5 kilometres but peaks at over 16 per cent.
With the first time check of the stage at the top of the Domancy, we will get our first indications as to who is going well. However, go too fast and you will pay for it as the road keeps climbing. Whoever does post the fastest time will get a chance to step up onto the podium at the finish and be awarded the Prix Bernard Hinault by the man himself. Today’s stage also celebrates Hinault’s 1980 world road race title, when he attacked alone on the Domancy climb to win the rainbow jersey.
The time trial goes up even higher, with the Cote des Chozeaux joining on almost seamlessly from the top of the Domancy. The road eases out to a much more manageable 1.6 per cent average for a kilometre before gradually nudging up to five per cent. The final kilometres of the Chozeaux appear almost like steps on the race profile, switching from a testing eight per cent to an almost flat section. It’s much less arduous than the Domancy, but riders will not be able to settle as the gradient constantly changes.
From the top of the Chozeaux, there is a two-kilometre descent to the line in Megeve. It’s almost entirely straight but with a 90-degree right-hand bend coming in the final metres.
The GC fight
As it stands, it appears that Froome has this year’s Tour de France all but wrapped up with three days still to go. Of course, we know that illness or a crash could turn the race on its head but, under normal circumstances, Froome looks set to go to Paris with yellow. The time trial will be a chance for Froome to further stamp his authority on the race and to take a stage win in the yellow jersey, something he has done during his last two successful Tours.
There are few that look strong enough to topple Froome in this stage, but he will face some competition. Tom Dumoulin is gearing up for a tilt at the time trial at the Olympic Games in Rio and has already proved his credentials once with a superb victory in the stage 13 time trial. Dumoulin has been riding a tactically astute Tour de France, peaking only when he needs to. He made sure to save his legs during yesterday’s mountain stage to the Emosson Dam, finishing more than half an hour down on the stage winner. This means that he should be fresh and ready on the line in Sallanches.
Froome’s former teammate and right-hand man Richie Porte is on a mission to make the podium and has looked strong in recent days. He has been the only rider to successfully attack Froome and draw the yellow jersey out of the bunch. The Australian struggled on the previous time trial following his crash on Mont Ventoux, but seems to have bounced back. He is sure to climb the standings later today.
Current second place Bauke Mollema is not a serious threat for the stage win or the yellow jersey at this stage but after his time trial performance earlier in the week, he should not be too worried about his position in the standings. Behind him, Adam Yates and Nairo Quintana will be looking to lose as little time as possible.
Outside the GC battle, we can expect to see strong performances from Jerome Coppel (IAM Cycling) and Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), who put in strong times last week.
Expect more hot conditions, with the temperatures rising to up to 32 degrees, and more wind. Earlier riders could also be subject to some showers after storms rolled through the region on Wednesday night.