When the route for the 2017 Tour de France was unveiled last October, one of the biggest selling points was the fact that, for the first time since 1992, the race would visit each of France's five mountain ranges. After the Vosges, the Jura, and the Pyrenees, today it's the turn of the Massif Central, a region that may lack the lustre and immediate decisiveness of its high-altitude counterparts but that nevertheless poses more than a few pitfalls for the overall contenders
The 189.5km stage, which starts out from Laissac-Sévérac l'Église and tracks north east through the hills to le Puy-en-Velay, has a curious profile. There are two first-category climbs, almost bookending the race, and the rolling roads rarely let up in between.
It should provide fertile ground for a breakaway, but make no mistake, this is a GC day, too. As the cliché goes, it may not be a stage where the Tour de France can be won, but certainly one where it can be lost.
"It's a dangerous stage," Julien Jurdie, directeur sportif for local lad Romain Bardet at AG2R La Mondiale, told Cyclingnews on Saturday. "Any of the favourites who are in a delicate state tomorrow could pay heavily."
The riders will start climbing after just 20km, with the first-category Montée de Naves d'Aubrac set to be decisive in the formation of the breakaway, and while the overall contenders aren't likely to take the race on from that far out, we could see many of them place teammates up the road to be called upon later.
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The race stays above 1000m of altitude for much of the day as the roads rise and dip all the way to the final 40km, which represents the endgame. The first-category Col de Peyra Taillade is a serious climb, 8.3km long with an average gradient of 7.4 per cent, with stretches in the double digits, and narrow roads to boot. Topping out with 31km to go, it gives way to a largely downhill run to Puy, though the road does kick up on a couple of occasions. If there are any differences between the favourites over the top of the climb the race will be on all the way to the line.
"The start of the stage is difficult and the end of the stage is really difficult," said Jurdie.
"You have to be at 100 per cent tomorrow. If all of the favourites are at 100 per cent, there won't, in principal, be any gaps, or only very small ones. But if one of the favourites tomorrow is a little off colour, the gaps could be significant."
More controlled with Froome in yellow
Friday's short stage in the Jura saw some of the most open and tactical racing we're likely to see at this year's Tour, with key players heading up the road and a disorganised yellow jersey group having to make it up as they went along.
This stage might have been ripe for more of the same, but the handover of the maillot jaune from Fabio Aru to Chris Froome on the uphill sprint in Rodez has once again changed the tactical complexion of the race. Team Sky are back in their familiar role of defending yellow, and Jurdie, more than happy with the development from the point of view of his team, predicts a more controlled day of racing.
"Astana would have had trouble controlling the race tomorrow. We could have had some bizarre situations, with important groups getting away, containing guys not that far down on GC," he said.
"Now, I think a big group could go up the road, but with riders way down on GC. It'll be an intense start with that early first-category climb, but I think Sky are going to filter it well."
Bardet, third overall at 23 seconds, is as good as on home turf as the race dips into the Auvergne, and by all accounts he wants to put on a show.
"He's arriving at home, he knows the stage perfectly, and he has lots of ideas in his head – if you listen to him, it's like it's going to be the great Bardet tomorrow. Our job is to focus him, calm him down, keep his cool," said Jurdie.
"Romain mustn't put in several random attacks. He needs to do one attack and do the damage with it. We know it will be difficult to put time into Froome on a stage like tomorrow but every second taken on the main favourites will be important."
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