“In Alps you are an eagle or a cretin”
Victor Hugo, Philosophie Prose
The hardest stage of the race? One of only two Alpine stages in the Tour this year, the question only arises because of the 148km distance which makes it one of the shortest stages this year. But all the better to make the race come alive as riders will have relatively fresh legs all day so whilst some will soar today others risk failure.
Even better this is another stage that will be televised from start to finish so if you’re lucky you won’t miss a pedal-stroke of the action.
- Km 40.0 – Col de la Madeleine (2 000 m) 25.3 kilometre-long climb at 6.2% – category HC
- Km 93.0 – Col de la Croix de Fer (2 067 m) 22.4 kilometre-long climb at 6.9% – category HC
- Km 113.0 – Col du Mollard (1 638 m) 5.7 kilometre-long climb at 6.8% – category 2
- Km 148.0 – La Toussuire 18 kilometre-long climb at 6.1% – category 1
The Route: there’s a short section of flat road at the start but this is likely to be ridden very fast as a breakaway tries to form. Indeed many riders will go for a warm-up before today’s stage starts so they can cope with the intense effort that is likely at the start.
As the profile shows the first climb goes up in steeps with some steep ramps from the beginning. It’s a tough climb and the irregularity of the gradient makes it awkward. The descent is a joy if you’re on a good day and the weather is nice and something that could suit a downhill attack as it gets technical in places.
The Intermediate Sprint: normally the descent of the Madeleine ends and you cross the valley and go straight up the Col de la Croix de Fer. But the organisers send the race up and down the valley to add a few more kilometres and provide a flat run ahead of the sprint. But this is the Alps and the sprint is still mildly uphill. The approach through town is fine except for a sharp right corner with 1km to go.
It’s marked Col de la Croix de Fer… but in fact the race climbs the Col du Glandon, only switching at the top to the Croix de Fer. Regardless this is another big climb and again one that goes up in steps. There’s a flat big in the middle where riders can put the chain back into the big ring before the road kicks up again. The road gets narrower towards the top with some uneven hairpins. The descent is similar with a series of switchbacks but the road straightens out later.
The Mollard is a scenic climb, better on a training camp when the only sounds are the marmottes whistling, the rasp of cows ripping grass from the lush pastures and your wheels on the tarmac. Instead we’ll get lively fans, helicopters and plenty of traffic but this is a strategic moment in the race especially because the last two kilometres ramp up and then follows a very tricky descent through woodland with shady corners and rough roads. A good descender can take a minute out of an average rider.
The Finish: the final climb to the ski station of La Touissuire is one of those Alpine roads capable of ferrying coachloads of tourists even in the middle of winter. It is a wide road with a steady gradient and for the most part a gradual climb. There’s a hairpin bend at one kilometre to go and then a sharp bend right with about 200m to go. The start is steep, meaning if a rider can pull out time here, they might be able to maintain it if the others flounder behind.
The Strategy: there are at least two separate objectives today, the stage win and the overall classification with the additional interest of two HC climbs offering beaucoup points mid-stage. For the stage win it is likely a breakaway forms on the first climb and some climbers go away for the day. The peloton behind might let them have their day, but it is conditional on the composition of the breakaway and whether hostilities break out behind.
For the overall candidates we’ll see if any of the teams in the hunt for a big place try to dynamite the race from the start. Sending riders up the road would help and we’ll see if riders like Astana’s Janez Brajkovic, Movistar’s Rui Costa or BMC Racing’s Teejay van Garderen try to go clear. If so this will force Team Sky to chase and commit precious energy early in the stage and increasing the chance that Wiggins and Froome are isolated. But I sense some caution amongst the others, few want to show their hand whilst Sky are so strong.
Later the Col du Mollard stands out as the launchpad for an attack for Cadel Evans, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Vincenzo Nibali. This trio have been the only big names willing to attack so far. Perhaps it is too obvious but they could try to accelerate over the top of the climb and then use the long descent to take time on Team Sky and hold the advantage to the finish. But the last climb is ideal for a train of Sky riders to haul back any fugitives given the relatively easier gradients, as much as the day offers big climbing the last climb is faster.
Worse we saw Nibali try a move yesterday. It didn’t work but it cost a lot of energy and perhaps some confidence. It’ll mean the Sicilian is likely to miss something today. And Evans too was sprinting for the finish, I don’t know why, except to win extra ranking points for him and his team.
Bradley Wiggins is a student of the sport’s history and I think at some point he’ll want to win a road stage outright whilst in yellow and he seems to have the form so don’t be surprised to see him going for it.
Weather: clear skies and sunny. Mild temperatures of 23°C (73°F) mean no melting tarmac but it’ll be cold at 2,000m.
TV: live and direct from Kilometre 0. Tune in at 1.00pm Euro time, an hour earlier than usual to see the whole stage live with the finish expected for 5.00-5.30pm.
Local food: not so much food but drink with génépi or Chartreuse de génépi. It’s a green alcoholic liqueur made from herbs and plants that grow high in the mountains.
Do: …watch this stage. It’s the only high altitude Alpine stage to feature in the race this year. The Pyrenees will offer plenty but this the definitive test after the Planche des Belles Filles and the Grand Colombier; and not just of climbing but descending too.
Don’t: …mention the altitude. After the stage all the teams are staying and around the ski resort of La Toussuire meaning a night spent at altitude. Generally this means riders sleep less well and don’t recover thanks to the more rarefied air. In his biography “Rough Ride”, Paul Kimmage mentions he slept fine at altitude until a team mate mentioned the phenomenon and never slept well again after.