Five climbs and then the vicious uphill finish above Mende. Today should see a big change in the overall classification with the heavier riders from the prologue and Monday’s 21 rider group dropping out of the top places thanks to the selective climb.
But it’s not just about the final climb. It’s could be windy, one climb listed as 4.5km long is actually twice as long and the race uses roads described in Tim Krabbé’s novel The Rider.
The start is in Onet-le-Chateau, just outside Rodez where yesterday’s stage finish happened. The uphill start is an ideal launch ramp for breakaways. It’s possible a move stays away all day, this might suit Team Sky who will be worried about Alejandro Valverde grabbing time bonuses at the intermediate sprint point and especially the finish line. But any escape depends on the composition of riders, they will all need to be well down on the general classification.
Just before the feed zone the race heads along the Tarn valley. We’re in the territory belonging to The Rider, the novel by Tim Krabbé. I’ve reviewed the book before but should return to it again because it’s probably the single best piece of literature about cycling I’ve read. The English translation is superb. However, the route today only glances by the roads described by Krabbé and goes in the other direction.
Talking of fiction the race climbs away from the Tarn on the Côte de La Malène. This is a first category climb and it’s listed as 4.2km at 7.9%… in fact the road climbs for 9km. It’s just the first 4km climb up the side of a cliff but once this is done the road goes up for much longer across a desolate plateau before descending back the Tarn valley again. Then it’s the Côte de l’Estrade, this time 6.1km at 8.1% and there’s nothing hidden here, this is a regular steep climb. Then comes this Côte de Chabrits, another effort.
The final climb will be decisive but don’t ignore the earlier efforts. If the climb above Mende is only three kilometres, it is very steep and comes after plenty of hard climbing all day. The stage is not Alpine, by my reckoning there are 2,500 vertical metres today but the climbing is concentrated on steep and sometimes rough roads.
There’s no debating the finish though. The riders will fly through Mende – bonus sprint – and then tackle the climb of the Croix Neuve, or the Montée Laurent Jalabert, named after the French rider who won there in 1995 who will be commentating for French TV today. It’s steep enough at 10% to make even a small gap pay dividends, once a rider opens a lead on the others it might look small in distance but counts for plenty in time. It’s all about pacing, go too early and too hard and you’ll pay later. Fail to follow the moves and you’ll struggle to close the gaps near the top.
This should be a showdown between Alejandro Valverde and Bradley Wiggins but it is perhaps too reductive to imagine a duel. He’s been invisible so far but Euskaltel’s Igor Anton is in the race and there are climbers who could profit. Think of David Moncoutié or Dani Navarro. The finish is intense and equally suit powerful riders, maybe Rein Taaramae will want to make amends for all his bad luck so far too and never forget Thomas Voeckler, even if he seems out of form for now. Simon Gerrans finished so strong on Tuesday he could have a go too.
Wiggins alone will be worth watching. Can he climb with the best? He’s done this climb before and was 14th in the 2010 Tour. Today is a great test because the ascension is like the Grand Colombier, the climb that will play a big role in the Tour de France next summer… except as brutal as today’s climb is, it is shorter and less steep. But we’ll see how he weathers the attacks.
TV: earlier coverage, this time 2.45pm to 4.15pm Euro time.
Weather: the “race to the sun” has already found the sunshine but warm temperatures aren’t here yet, only 9°C. Above all it’s going to be windy near the finish. A northerly wind will blow at 20-30km/h but could gust to 60km/h. The route is sheltered in places but exposed in others. If the wind is blowing as forecast then it will be possible to blow the race apart in crosswinds again.
Wild guess: Alejandro Valverde finished second here the last time Paris-Nice came, behind Alberto Contador and is the logical pick. But what if Wiggins has a superior power to weight ratio? The steady climb could suit him.
Local riders: I can’t think of any. The regions crossed today have some of the lowest population densities in France. There’s some fine cycling, in large part due to the empty roads.
Hungry? It’s too early for the cherries that come from the Tarn valley. Instead there’s plenty of honey and dishes made from chestnuts if you have a sweet tooth.