Five climbs and that’s before the big summit finish on the Plateau de Beille. If Thursday gave us a glimpse through the fog of who was in form and a contender for the overall win, today will provide a much clearer view.
The stage crosses the Ariège department of France, right in the middle of the Pyrenees and a land of many hilltop castles, a legacy of 13th century religious wars and more recently a popular place for hippy camps. Spend time in the area and you’ll soon spot a disproportionate amount of long hair and tie-dye t-shirts.
It’s uphill right from the start and the first climb is a nasty one with 4.3km but at 9.7% and the first kilometre over 10%. Even if a break has already gone clear before the climb the pace is still likely to be high.
The intermediate sprint is a tricky one, on narrow roads and with an up and down approach before the road kicks up towards the line. Philippe Gilbert will be eyeing up the points, perhaps HTC-Highroad will aim to send riders ahead to grab points because the Portet d’Aspet climb certainly won’t suit Mark Cavendish.
The Col de la Core is longer but look closely and it’s not too steep, an average of 5.7% with a maximum of around 7%. This won’t trouble many in the race but it’s just part of the softening up of the riders. The same for the Col de Latrape which, despite the name, should not trap many riders as it’s 7.2% for 5.6km.
The Col d’Agnes is steeper but it’s too far from the finish for any real fireworks but it could be the place where riders lose plenty of energy. 10km at over 8%, it has some steep ramps and the irregular slopes should see any breakaway thinned out. The riders bridge to the Port de Lers but from there is still 50km to the finish including an awkward flat 10km section from Tarascon to the foot of the Plateau de Beille where if the wind is blowing many a rider could struggle to hold of a chase.
The race has climbed up to the Plateau de Beille four times before and each time the victor at the top has apparently gone on to win the Tour de France. It’s no coincidence because this is a very tough climb, 15.8km at 7.9% with a steep start. That’s as steep as Alpe d’Huez but longer but it’s actually significantly harder as “The Alpe” is a mechanised road designed to allow easy travel for coachloads of tourists but today’s climb is more irregular with steep hairpin bends, where riders are often changing up and down in the gears.
Summary: a crucial stage of the 2011 Tour de France. The early climbs are about wearing down and we can expect a big showdown on the final climb. Most of the contenders seem to lack team support so it could be a straight battle. Don’t expect big fireworks or long range attacks, Fränk Schleck will be satisfied if he can take 30 seconds off Contador for example. Perhaps Fränk will let brother Andy go up the road? But look to Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez, Damiano Cunego, Ivan Basso and Alberto Contador, plus maybe even Jelle Vanendert or Arnold Jeannesson.
As for Thomas Voeckler, he kept yellow on the Plateau de Beille in 2004, holding off the supercharged US Postal train and Ivan Basso so he might hope to stay in yellow. His ride up Luz Ardiden on Thursday was very impressive so he’s in with a chance. But it’s just a chance.
Weather: mild with sunshine and a few clouds, the top temperature of 24°C and 15°C up high. The wind will be a factor too, swirling in the valleys at up to 40km/h.