Some say the Tour de France begins today. We’ll finally discover which of the pretenders for the overall win are really on form, you can’t bluff on a 10km mountain pass. In that sense the Tour de France will end for several riders today.
The route leaves the capital of the European aerospace industry for the Pyrenees, a strange land that’s rural and relaxing but where time seems to have stood still, as if the clock broke in about 1984. By my reckoning that’s a year back in time every 8km.
Look at the profile and it’s broadly flat until the intermediate sprint, you’d expect a breakaway to go early but the roads don’t give an obvious launchpad and many will want to try their luck. So a fast first hour is on the cards. The sprint point itself should be interesting as it’s the finish line for many sprinters who have no chance for winning anything else on the day. Here the approach into the village of Sarrancolin is wide and ever so slightly uphill.
Soon after comes the Hourquette d’Ancizan. It’s an alternative to the Col d’Aspin and hard. It’s actually a new climb for the Tour de France and this alone is worth a mention, because after over 100 years of visiting the Pyrenees there are still new roads to be used, it shows how conservative the race has been in the past, always returning to familiar terrain. But the climb is not new to racing, for example in 2004 a certain Thomas Voeckler won during the Route du Sud stage race. It’s a hard climb with slopes of 9% early on, suddenly the race goes from 10 days of big ring riding straight into… the inner ring. Overall it’s 9.9km at 7.5%, a proper Pyreneen climb and worthy of the first category status given the gradient although clearly this is not a long climb.
Instead for a longer climb, see the Col du Tourmalet. This is 17.1km at 7.3km. It takes in the eastern flank – which for me is the easier side but only just – thanks to a rolling climb out of St Marie de Campan. Note Tourmalet sort of means “bad detour” in French and also that when the race went up here Andy Schleck forget to eat enough and threw away his shot at the Tour de France.
I don’t expect many attacks here because riders often play it safe until the final climb but all the same many can drop out of contention on this climb. Indeed given the fast descent afterwards and the immediate approach to the final climb, if a climber really feels like it they could pull out a lead on the Tourmalet and then build on this later on. But let’s not dream.
The final climb is a tricky one with some steep ramps and many hairpin bends. It’s the ideal place for an attack as a rider can quickly get out of sight and take time. But precedent suggests the GC favourites mark each other to watch for signs of weakness. For sure some riders might crack but we are unlikely to see big time gaps. Still, the first mountain stage last year was to Avoriaz which is a very different road being regular, today is steeper and more irregular and might lend itself to an opportunist.
Summary: we’ll know plenty about the race by the end of the day. Perhaps the story won’t be about the winner but who has lost the Tour de France. Note the three climbs have no valley riding in between, this suits a climber who would otherwise struggle on flatter roads.
King of the Mountains: 10 points for the first rider up the first category climb of the Ancizan (then 8,6,4,2,1) and then 20, 16, 12, 8, 4, 2 for the HC Tourmalet before points are doubled for the HC summit finish, meaning 40 points for the first rider. Johnny Hoogerland is on 21 points meaning everything changes.
Bastille Day: it’s a national holiday so expect big roadside crowds and keen French riders to put on a show.
Competition: I’ll be doing another giveaway competition later today so stay tuned.
Locals: Blel Kadri and Jean-Christophe Péraud are Toulouse which also was the home of David Moncoutié too. Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt used to share a house near the start but their local knowledge won’t help as they’re likely to be on team duty for the Schlecks.
Viewing: if you can, try to catch as much of the early action as possible. If you can’t from about 3.40 PM CET you’ll get the Tourmalet and the finish on Luz Ardiden.
Weather: cloudy in the morning but the sun will make an appearance in the afternoon, albeit a timid one. Temperatures will vary, from 23°C (73°F) on the plains to 6°C (43°F) near the top of the Tourmalet.