The riders of the Tour de France will face their toughest challenge yet in the high mountains of the Pyrenees on stage 12. Departing from Lannemezan, the 195 km stage will be one to fear for the sprinters, and one to attack for the climbers. The GC contenders looking to dethrone Chris Froome (Team Sky) will need to strike today, to see if the last two days have left him and his team vulnerable.
Team Sky has ridden a near perfect race since the grand départe last week. Chris Froome dominated the first mountain top finish ascending La Pierre- Saint-Martin and stamping his name on the yellow jersey. It seems the heat got the better of his competitors, as they were content to give yesterday to the breakaway, while unable to do much to answer Froome’s attack the day before.
The ‘furious five’ GC contenders have been reduced once more to the ‘fab four’ but this time with Tejay van Garderen who sits in second overall. Vincenzo Nibali lost time after yet another catastrophic day on stage 11. The Italian and his team had increased the pace, leading the yellow jersey group up the Col du Tourmalet, only to fall apart ascending the final climb before the finish. The defending Tour champion now sits nearly eight minutes down on GC, far outside overall contention.
Facing the hardest day of the race so far, few will be able to hide on the looming mountains. The legs will warm up with the opening second-category climb, the Col de Portet-d’Aspet that has an average gradient of 9.7%. It is also marked as the second steepest climb of the Tour.
Former Olympic Champion, Fabio Casartelli, lost his life during the 15th stage of the 1995 Tour on this descent. Riders however, will have little time to reflect passing his memorial, as they recover the best they can before heading uphill once more.
Continuing the jagged profile, next on the menu for the day are two first-category climbs. The heat being a factor in the previous days, it is set to reach the mid-30s once again. Both Contador and Quintana cited difficulty breathing with the combination of humidity. They will need all the oxygen available to them as they ascend to the finish climbing 15.8 km with up to 10% at times.
After a strong showing by Tinkoff-Saxo yesterday, Contador’s squad moved into the lead of the overall team classification. He remains 4:40 down from Froome in sixth place overall, but will have strong support with Rafal Majka, Michael Rogers, and Roman Kreuziger by his side. Riding road captain for the team, Rogers believes today will be Contador’s to attack – if he has the legs.
The Spaniard so far has shown fatigue and frustration since winning the Giro in May, missing the energy and explosiveness he is accustomed to. Yet Contador has proven he is one of the best in Grand Tours, even when he is not the strongest. Memories of his win eight years ago on the Plateau de Beille, will no doubt motivate him even more.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) are expecting a battle after the uneventful day on stage 11. Both maintained their second and third spots on GC with the American down 2:52 and 17 seconds ahead of the current best young rider.
While van Garderen lacks the explosiveness of his GC competitors, he could see himself swap places with Quintana in the overall, unless he is able to respond to the dangerous moves as he has so far this week. Sammy Sanchez will likely turn himself inside out to help his team leader, perhaps motivated by his loss in 2011 on the same final climb.
Quintana meanwhile is simply looking to ‘control Froome’ as he mentioned at the finish yesterday. If the opportunity presents itself he will instruct his team to lead the way before attacking himself if he has acclimated to the climate. The Colombian cited the heat for his lack of response the past two days, but could it be he was reserving himself for stage 12?