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.
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.
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…
…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).