The race heads for the mountains and the Grand Colombier. It is not a famous climb.
But consider this for a moment: the Col du Galibier from Valloire is 18.1km long and averages 6.9%. The Grand Colombier from Culoz is 18.1km long and averages 6.9%.
Before you leap to the comments, there are some obvious differences, notably altitude. The Grand Colombier tops out at 1501m, almost the starting point for the Galibier which rises from 1400m to a giant 2646m where the reduced partial pressure of oxygen becomes more than noticeable during effort, it extracts a price for any acceleration. But the Grand Colombier can trump the Galibier in other ways, notably the gradient. If the average for Grand Colombier is 6.9%, this is a redundant statistic because the climb is know for its irregularity, one minute the slope is 14%, the next it is 2%. There are even two short downhill sections.
This irregularity makes it a hard climb to judge. Riders will need to work the derailleur and they will climb at variable pace, winching themselves up one minute and then rolling fast the next. But if you’re a bad day it means you struggle on the steep ramps and when it eases up you’re left gasping for air whilst the fresher riders power away.
The Tour de France has never tackled it, the mountain has not had the chance to enter cycling mythology. This will begin to change in July when it is used for the first time. Today’s stage is a copycat of the Tour’s Stage 10 with roughly two thirds of the same route. If it’s not been in the Tour de France, the peloton is no stranger to the climb as it’s been a staple of the Tour de l’Ain every August and the Dauphiné itself has climbed it once in 1988.
The descent is worth a mention too. For just as the climb features some steep ramps the descent is equally steep. It’s selective on the way up but dangerous on the way down. Many riders have visited the climb in reconnaissance ahead of the Tour de France so hopefully there are no nasty surprises.
For all the climb brings steep gradients worthy of the Giro d’Italia to this race and the Tour de France, there’s a long way to the finish. From the top there’s 68km to the finish line, some 70-80 minutes of racing. The Col de Richemond features but it’s 7km at 4%. It’ll be interesting to see who has their mountain legs, especially to check how Wiggins is climbing.
In the Tour de France the finish will be closer. So we’ll see what the favourites do today, will someone amongst the top contenders have a go? Or is there too far to go from the main climb to the finish. Instead it seems likely a breakaway is allowed some room, especially since it’ll be wet. David Moncoutié is an obvious pick, the Frenchman is climbing well and has won in the Tour de l’Ain before. But there will be many others looking to exploit the terrain, for example Thomas Voeckler gave up five minutes yesterday and his team mate Pierre Rolland had a stinker, losing time in the time trial and then getting a two minute penalty for “excessive drafting”, presumably of another rider who passed him.
But don’t exclude some kind of bunch sprint. Some sprinters and fast finishes who lose time on the big climb might have time to get back on and then win from a reduced peloton, for example Boasson Hagen. The finish in Rumilly is flat, a roundabout with 800m should be ok and then it’s straight to the line on a road six metres wide.
Weather: wet. Heavy rain is expected to clear in the afternoon but it could still be pouring during the climb of the Grand Colombier and its steep descent. Temperatures will reach 20°C (68°F).
TV: annoying it looks like the live coverage will start about the time the riders reach the top of the Grand Colombier so we won’t get to see up close how the riders are climbing. With the feed beginning around 3.00pm Euro time you can tune in for the descent and the remainder of the stage.
Food: the local dish in the Jura is quenelle de brochet sauce nantua, or pike – a freshwater predatory fish – in pastry with crayfish butter sauce.
Geography: the race isn’t in the Alps. Instead the Grand Colombier is part of the Jura, a chain of calcite mountains formed well before the Alps, in fact they have given their name to the Jurassic era (yes, as in “park”). They stretch in an arc from France across to Switzerland but which have been used very sparingly in the Tour de France. Whilst the Col du Grand Colombier is indeed a pass over the top, the actual pass is only a tiny gap. Instead think of the Grand Colombier as a large shoebox-shaped mountain and the race will ride right over the top, a bit like Mont Ventoux. The climb is said by some to be a furnace, especially on the lower slopes where the rocks reflect the heat. In fact it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. The area around the bottom of the climb is marsh alongside the Rhone river and so humidity is high and when riders sweat, it doesn’t evaporate.