The Spin: Stage 18

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Stage 18

Big, grande, enorme. Call it what you like, this is the biggest stage of the 2011 Tour de France. It might not settle the result, far from it, but three hors catégorie climbs including the finish in the Galibier mean it’s a massive day in the race. The French call it the Etape Reine, literally the “Queen Stage”.

Today’s stage from Pinerolo to the Galibier crosses back to France. Ignore the “Serre Chevalier” name since the ski resort is actually a good distance from the finish, it reminds me of the low-cost airlines in Europe that claim to fly to a capital city but land in a provincial airport far from the stated destination.

There’s a regular intermediate sprint in Verzulo after 46km which should the highlight of the day for the sprinters because they won’t enjoy what’s coming afterwards.

Col d'Agnel

Look at the profile. 23km averaging 6.5% is hard enough but the last 8km are over 10% and to make things even harder it reaches 2744 metres, making it the third highest mountain pass in France. There are steeper, there are longer but this is one tough start to the race. In particular there are tight hairpin bends at the top to make the change of pace just that bit more brutal. None of the big race favourites will attack here but if the favourites can’t eliminate their rivals here, they can get rid of their rivals’ team mates. Spare a thought for those likely to get dropped here too. The descent is technical in places but very scenic. There’s almost no rest before the next col.

Col d'Izoard

Look at the profile and this col almost looks small, sandwiched between the Agnel and Galibier but it’s no filler. It’s a very hard climb in its own right. For me 6-7% slopes are manageable but 9-10% gradients that go on and on are only for the real climbers, almost everyone else struggles for rhythm. Look out for the Casse Déserte section, the barren scree slopes that look almost lunar. Again this is another chance to shrink the group of contenders, with the aim of isolating riders from their team mates. It is possible a favourite attacks because again there’s a long descent and then it’s straight into the next climb…

Col du Galibier

…but the final climb is not really one ascent but two. The first section is the Col du Lautaret, 14km at about 4% and normally a second category climb in it’s own right. It’s not a great route, first because outside of the race this is a major trunk road across the Alps and cyclotourists and pros on recon rides alike have to share the road with a lot of traffic. Second, because it’s often windy and curiously it can be calm elsewhere yet there’s often a headwind or tailwind on the Lautaret. As such this is a power climb, one that will normally be done at high speed and in a big gear.

Then things change for the Galibier itself. This is France’s fourth highest col and the race is celebrating the anniversary in 1911 when the col was first used. It’s steep, the road isn’t wide and the surface is irregular. There’s a flat section near the top, by the tunnel and the Henri Desgrange memorial and then it kicks up again. By this point altitude means that even the slightest visit into the red can cost plenty, perhaps the race.

It’s possible the accumulation of climbing so far means real gaps open up between the GC contenders, not the handful of seconds but chunkier amounts, maybe even a minute or more. Surely Thomas Voeckler’s dream will come to an end and Cadel Evans is the best placed. It’s up to the Schleck brothers and Contador to decide if they want to try and win the race or if they’ll settle for less. Oh, and watch for Samuel Sanchez and Jelle Vanendert, both are contesting the King of the Mountains jersey.

An early breakaway is bound to get away but they’ll be looking over their shoulder knowing the GC contenders are planning a showdown later on. I can’t see things happening until the final climb because whilst someone could get away on the Izoard and maintain their lead on the descent, the Lautaret section of the final climb is exposed and almost a false flat at times, energy can easily be wasted here. You’d have to get a move containing several contenders at once.

Weather: warm and sunny at the start. Talk of snow has melted away but the Alps have been blanketed with snow which is now melting. It will be cold at altitude, the top temperature at the finish will be 6°C (43°F).

Ankush July 21, 2011 at 8:17 am

The race has been lightened up by Bertie’s attacks and Evans’ tenacity. Drastic changes in temperature and accumulated climbing will make this stage even trickier. I think Contador will have to win this one to put any considerable time into his rivals. Allez!

Dave Row July 21, 2011 at 8:49 am

“For me 6-7% slopes are manageable but 9-10% gradients that go on and on are only for the real climbers, almost everyone else struggles for rhythm” – Never a truer word spoken. Double-digit gradients on the Agnel are going to set the tone for an epic day. Am hoping Contador ignites today.

grumpyoldman July 21, 2011 at 8:56 am

Do you know if Cav has ever tackled anything as severe as this before?

If not, the odds of 4/1 on that he holds on to the green jersey all the way look pretty skinny to me, given that he struggled the other day on the Plateau de Beille.

I hasten to add that I have zero interest in betting on the race. It’s just that the betting market is often a pretty good guide to all sorts of events with probabilistic outcomes, but in this case it seems to be skewed.

El Gato de La Cala July 21, 2011 at 9:12 am

Come high mountains – come order! This is not about betting or odds, this is about having good legs. About not feeling the chain on the climps and about digging deep, very DEEP on the final 3-4 K from the top of Galibier. A Contador trade mark? Or Andy finally benefitting from hiding away for months? Tomorrow is all about staying close, so watch out for today. However there are still plenty of time to some gardening, a brief ride on the bike, a round of golf – because the contenders will only shine on the last 4 k´s of today or fade away!

Bundle July 21, 2011 at 9:22 am

Too bad the Passo Fauniera is not there before the Agnello and the last climb is the Lautaret and not the Granon (that would be a great, great stage). Still, there is enough territory for any option. I would point two things out:
1) If the Schlecks wait for the upper part of the Lautaret/Galibier, they’re lost: they need to take more time from Evans than they would if they waited sol long. So they have to attack on the Izoard or, better, on the Agnello, in order to isolate leaders as much and as soon as possible.
2) I’m one of those who still see no reason why the race cannot be shattered to 3-strong groups 100 km from the finish. Today can be one of the days where old-time epics return, and much of what is taken from granted nowadays (that a leader won’t try to break away from the other leaders from very far) is proved wrong. The Schlecks’ prestige and credibility (and future salary) is at stake today, and Contador is also racing like he’s got something to prove.
So let’s dream!

Alex Murray - Chasing Wheels July 21, 2011 at 9:39 am

@Bundle. Anyone trying to go from 100km out will be brought back on the Lautaret part of the Galibier: it’s pretty much straight up the valley and I seem to remember the locals say a tailwind is rare. The headwind when I rode it was the sort of consistent strength that puts you back in your saddle and keeps you there if you’re feeling it.

I’m interested to see what Kim Andersen tries in his DS playbook. The obvious is to get Voigt or Cancellara up the road to pull on the Lautaret or at least hope they can make it back on the faster sections of the Izoard descent. I reckon BMC could work the same tactic very effectively with someone like Burghardt. Saxo Bank, I’m less sure if they have the resources, even if Bjarne would love to.

Basso is the one to watch for me. If Szmyd is on song today they’ll turn the screw on the Galibier, forcing the pace. I don’t think any of the others, save perhaps Evans, like it when the pace is kept high like that as it stops them being able to make those big bursts that give them the gap.

Watching Contador is going to be like watching a firework with a lit fuse. I can’t wait.

NickL July 21, 2011 at 9:51 am

Fantastic write-up, and those diagrams show just how brutal this is… As for who to watch: after yesterday’s fun which saw so many of the main contenders come in with the same time after so many different tactics, I can’t even begin to predict what will happen.

But it’ll be cracking to watch!

PJ July 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

Every time I look at that last 8km of the Col Agnel it makes me wince. If it is ridden hard by the favourites then there will have to be major time gaps at the finish.

Be interesting to see if the Contador-Sanchez love-in continues. When you consider the Schlecks are also a 1-2 punch (although it’s looking more of a powder-puff punch at the moment), and Voeckler has Pierre Rolland, Evans will have to do it all on his own. He’s got the form to pull it off, but the effort will be enormous and I wonder if such an ordeal will lead to a repeat of 2008, with Evans cracking on Alpe D’Huez…

Flashing Pedals July 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

It’ll be interesting to watch the various ‘combines’ that are forming.

Contador is working with anyone Spanish !
Schlecks – well they are a law unto themselves, perhaps combining with a rival might enable them to make an attack that works, rather than wasting their team for minimal gains, they then lose.
Evans – Basso : they are mates and fighting for a common cause. Basso is off the GC pace, but some combined work, will reap rewards.

Bundle July 21, 2011 at 11:13 am

@Alex Murray: but I agree, that large, semiflat road, between Briançon and the Lautaret is a deterrent for soloing (and that’s why I think ASO made a bit of a mistake, and whywould have preferred a finish up the Granon). And indeed today, significant headwind is announced there. Yet, the route being what it is, how you manage that false flat is going to be crucial.
What I mean is that the Agnello-Izoard is so tough, that there might well be no groups with more than 4-5 riders in Briançon. The trick, if someone aims to reach the Lautaret with some advantage is, one hand, to find an ally, and second, to maximize gaps at the Izoard summit. In other words, if you want to make the race explode, and inutilize teamwork and bunch-riding in the Lautaret, then the Schlecks, Contador, and/or Basso, should make Evans and Voeckler respond, in person, to serious attacks as early as the middle of the Agnello.
But if you have a 15-20 people in the main group, two kms from the top of the Izoard, better not attack, because you’re going nowhere.

Kev July 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Rode Agnello, Izoard, Lautaret to Bourg D’Oisan in 2008. Head wind all the way. If you get up the road early you are visible to the chasing group and if there is a headwind there will be no getting away until Galibier which will restrict the amount of time that can be taken from the leaders.

It will be a fantastic stage. Go Cadel

LeonG July 21, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Perhaps Andy will stop wailing like a child now he’s actually stuck his neck out and got on with the job.

LeonG July 21, 2011 at 10:48 pm

It has been imperative all the way along that sooner or later Cadel would have to make a move of his own Andy Schleck has reinforced the importance of this. The Australian is in the strongest position with the tt on Saturday but he had better not let matters almost get out of handas they did today. That’s the warning.
Thomas was wonderful. Alberto is out with the Giro in his legs. Bad day for him. Ivan has not got a hope.

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