After six days of heading south from the English channel via Limoges and the Massif Central, the Tour de France heads upwards on Friday and through the weekend with a triptych of mountain stages in the Pyrenees.
The sprint stages, as always, have been thrilling and often controversial, producing winners and losers, but a more complex battle for the yellow jersey will begin in earnest on the steep slopes of the mountain range that divides France from Spain.
Ten major climbs stand out tall during the three days of racing and will no doubt divide the pre-race overall contenders, allowing possible winners and podium finishers to rise to the top and condemning those who struggle to lesser roles. This year’s Tour de France is backloaded with a visit to Mont Ventoux and some testing stages in the Alps, but the Pyrenees carry the excitement of hosting the first real test for the likes of Chris Froome (Team Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte (BMC). The troubled and perhaps injured Alberto Contador must fight against his rivals and a divided Tinkoff team, while a hole host of French contenders are buoyed by a good first week and the French national pride running through the country thanks to the success of the soccer team.
Three days of mountains
The three days of racing in the Pyrenees begin with Friday’s stage from L’isle-Jourdan to Lac de Payolle. It takes the race from the plains near Toulouse to the rarefied air of the real mountains. It is arguably a hors d’oeuvre or entrée to the main course of rich racing on Saturday and Sunday, but it will reveal some real truths about the contenders for yellow in this year’s race.
The road into the Pyrenees begins to climb after 100km and then kicks up on the slopes of the Col d’Aspin. It is 12km at 6.5%, with a tougher mid-section at 9% that could inspire some attacks. Interestingly, the finish is only seven kilometres from the summit, with a steep descent and then a one-kilometre kick up to the finish at the scenic Lac de Payolle. A long climb followed by a short descent is fertile territory for attacks, and this has the potential to be spark a GC shoot-out, with the descent as big of a factor as the climb. If anybody is feeling especially good, we might see the most decisive climb of the Col d’Aspin since it first appeared in the Tour de France in 1910.
Saturday’s stage is far tougher and far more mountainous than Friday’s opener, with four major cols spread along the 184km route like sharp shark teeth. It is perfect for a breakaway of climbers chasing a prestigious stage victory or points for the polka dot jersey. However it is also a testing day for the overall contenders and could reveal some significant weaknesses that have remained hidden so far in the race.
The route is a riff on the original Pyrenean “Circle of Death”, which first appeared in the 1910 Tour de France, the first time the race went into the high mountains. That year saw the riders cross the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque, 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. Then comes the Val Louron Azet, and finally the Peyresourde and the descent to Luchon, which is fast and swooping.
Although it does not end with a summit finish, the toughness of the stage, the sheer quantity of climbing and the speed of the final descent should ensure that it’s one of the crucial GC days of the entire Tour. If Team Sky and Movistar set the fierce pace they produced on the Puy Mary on Wednesday, some of their rivals could be quickly isolated and then in serious trouble.
On the third day the first mountain finish
Riders often train for three days and then enjoy a rest day to allow their bodies to recover and adapt to the work done. However no amount of training can really prepare for this year’s third day in the Pyrenees.
As the first mountain finish of this year’s Tour, it will be a crucial day for the fight for yellow. Froome and Team Sky will perhaps take control of the race on the climb to the finish but Surely Nairo Quintana and a few other rivals will be ready this year and be able to respond. If they don’t or can’t, they don’t deserve to go enjoy the first rest and then go forward to challenge the Kenyan-born Brit.
Andorra and the final climb to Arcalis is a relative newcomer among the summit finishes of the Tour. It has twice appeared in the race, in 1997, when Jan Ullrich gave a monstrous demonstration of the ability he would later let slip away, and 2009, when Bradley Wiggins discovered himself as a Tour contender while the idea of a Team Sky and marginal gains were just a twinkle in Dave Brailsford’s eye.
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This year’s stage should be just as historic. The Port de la Bonaigua will inspire the first attacks with the climb up to Arcalis -101km at 7.2% sure to inspire attacks.
Most of the overall contenders, with no time trial or tough finish yet to split them, are currently grouped together, some five minutes down on Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). Contador 1:21 further back and on the edge of no return and only Porte is worse off, a further 30 seconds back. Yet it would be foolish to already count them out of the fight for yellow before the Pyrenees have even started.
Indeed, it will be the mountains that cause and inspire any attacks and problems but whatever happens, the general classification will look far different on the other side of the Pyrenees, when the riders finally get to enjoy the first rest day.
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