The Spin – Stage 16

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

If the Pyrenees were an album, today would be the Greatest Hits. The Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde are all classics and if the Col du Soulor is missing, it’s because it’s a cover version of the Aubisque since it climbs the same mountain.

  • Km 53.5 – Col d’Aubisque (1 709 m)16.4 kilometre-long climb at 7.1% – category HC
  • Km 120.5 – Col du Tourmalet (2 115 m)19 kilometre-long climb at 7.4% – category HC
  • Km 150.5 – Col d’Aspin (1 489 m)12.4 kilometre-long climb at 4.8% – category 1
  • Km 181.5 – Col de Peyresourde (1 569 m)9.5 kilometre-long climb at 6.7% – category 1

The Route: the Pyrenees differ from the Alps as the mountain passes here are more irregular than the Alpine cousins. The Alps have engineered roads, first designed to allow access for the army and artillery and now offering easy access to ski resorts for invading tourists in their coaches. By contrast the Pyrenees feel like a place where people walked over the hills and mountains, then started with donkeys and a horse and cart, then a car before finally surfacing the road with tarmac. The gradients change, the hairpin bends are uneven and the roads snake up the hill side. A generalisation? Yes, as there are small Alpine climbs and I can point out big wide climbs in the Pyrenees too. But it holds true too.

It’s uphill from the start with an uncategorised hill in Rébénacq, it’s straight towards the Col d’Aubisque. It’s rated hors catégorie… but I don’t think it’s quite that hard.

The start of the climb is ok. You might remember last year when Thor Hushovd attacked at the foot of the climb, using the early ramps to gain time on the others before the steeper slopes and gravity slowed him. Higher up it is scenic with some steep hairpin bends and livestock roam the roads. The descent is via the Col du Soulor and technical in places, you need to know the road to exploit it fully.

The Tourmalet is certainly deserving of its HC label and is the unmissable climb of the Pyrenees thanks to its central location and severity. It starts off on a wide road out of the valley and has a safe feel even if the gradient starts kicking up quickly. Things change after the hairpins of Betpouey and then the race passes through the ski town of Barèges and after this the road begins to tack up the side of the mountain and it gets harder towards the top before some steep ramps to the col itself and the waiting Prix Jacques Goddet prize. The descent is fine, some open hairpins but nothing too technical and it eases up the lower you go.

Then it’s onto the Col d’Aspin, no need to include the profile as it’s not technical, it’s really an approach road up the valley that kicks up after a hairpin bend to finish with four kilometres of challenging gradient. Maybe someone will try something here but returning to the theme of the album, this is an interlude.

The final climb of the day, the Peyresourde translates from old French as “deaf stone” and it’s the track where the volume is turned up to 11. It’s not long but it’s irregular, climbing up through pretty pastures – look for the stock photo of a man with a pitchfork tending to some hay as riders go past, the Pyrenean version of sunflowers –  before a steep finish. The descent then drops down to the finish, after a few bends near the top it’s nothing too difficult with some long high speed sections. The descent goes right into town and the road only flattens out with 2.5km to go.

The Finish: downhill into town, it flattens out and then there’s a hairpin at 2km to go before several left turns in the final 1000 metres including a final bend at 200m. If a group comes into town to contest the finish then positioning for the final bend is vital as it is just 200 metres from the finish line. Ideally you want to go into the bend in second place and then pass your rival; certainly if you go in too far back then you’ve lost.

The Race: this might be the greatest hits of the Pyrenees but we’ll see what tunes the riders play. Some warlike Wagner and perhaps some Massive Attack? Or six hours of the riders waltzing gently over the mountains, a lullaby for TV audiences.

The word is that most riders fear tomorrow’s stage, as a result today could be a process of attrition. I think today’s route lends itself to riders like Thomas Voeckler, Luis Leon Sanchez, Sandy Casar and a newly confident Pierrick Fédrigo who can infiltrate the early breakaway and win the stage, perhaps with a view to hunting mountains points given the two-HC rated climbs early on.

As for the overall contenders, there are two races here. First the classic battle for riders to overhaul Bradley Wiggins on this hot day but this is almost impossible given Vincenzo Nibali sits 2.23 down on Wiggins. He will lose time in Stage 20’s time trial so if he wanted to seize the yellow jersey today he’d need to win by four or five minutes; the heat and sticky tarmac could prove Wiggins’ biggest worry. Instead the other race is to settle the placings, if Sky look very strong then others can still move into a good position in the top-10 although many will want to do this by letting their adversaries collapse.

Can Sky be isolated? You sense few riders and teams want to put their riders to work against Sky, especially with tomorrow’s stage. I’d like to see hostilities on the Tourmalet but don’t be surprised if things only come alive on the Peyresourde.

TV: live from 11.00am Euro time non-stop, this is a marathon for those sitting in an armchair yet alone the saddle. The finish is expected between 5.00pm and 5.40pm.

Weather: important this time, it’s going to be hot with temperatures reaching 30°C (86°F). There’s the obvious problem of the heat, riders will get dehydrated and some will slow because of this. But in the Pyrennes melting tarmac is a problem too, you come round a corner and can roll into a patch of tar that has turned into treacle.

Local rider: Matthieu Ladagnous of FDJ-Bigmat. “Lada” is from near the start and although he lives a short spin from the Aubisque and Soulor climbs is a former track rider who can sprint well. He’s been vital in helping Thibaut Pinot stay in the right place during the race and he’s got a useful sprint if he ever gets into the breakaway. Just not today.

Do: …speak Spanish. If the stage finishes in Bagnères du Luchon, 20 out of the 22 teams are being lodged overnight in Spain. I don’t know why, there’s ample hotel room available in France but it’ll please many of the Spanish riders in the Tour who have not had a great time so far, with the exception of Luisle Sanchez.

Don’t: repeat the myth of Eugène Christophe breaking his forks on the descent of the Tourmalet and then getting them repaired in a blacksmith, only to lose the Tour that year because if the rules said riders had to be independent and not use outside help for repairs, a boy was operating the bellows for the fire and this meant help. Christophe was docked three minutes for this extra help, a blink of an eyelid in the days when the margin of victory in the Tour was huge; he lost the Tour for other reasons.

Dave E July 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

Lets have more days like this next year please.

grumpyoldman July 18, 2012 at 9:39 am

Nice to see in today’s Telegraph that apparently Big Mig is rooting for Wiggins.

Also this broadside against Britain’s moronic celebrity culture has sent him up tenfold in my estimation.

““It’s nice to be recognised for achieving something in life because so much of British culture is built on people being famous for not achieving anything.”

Amen to that. Let’s hope he gets through the coming ordeal.

El Gato de la Cala July 18, 2012 at 9:51 am

Having ridden most climbs in the Pyrenees back in 1990 – though on MTB as part of a one month trip on my own – my first ever proper climb as a newbie bike rider was Col d´Aubisque. Wakey waykey…

It´s a nasty little thing where the road offers instant changes from riding in the shadow to the being exposed in the sun and the heat might take its victims today, but as mentioned the change in surface and gradient is the far most difficult part compared to the Alps. Expect to see everybody out of the block from the start and even riders from +15-20 minutes down the GC can climb close to the podium today if Royal Air Force accepts, though. Enjoy the scenery – it doesn´t get any better elsewhere in the world and expect + 100 km/h to be clocked on the downhill sectors. GAME ON!

Peter Close July 18, 2012 at 10:02 am

The melting tarmac scenario sounds fanciful, but I did L’Etape in 2007 through the Pyrenees from Foix to Loudenville. We had a tough day and the 4 th climb was horrible over Port de Bales ( if my memory serves me). It was baking hot and yes, the newly laid road surface melted into a gooey mess. It was terrible. There was a lot of suffering that day and I saw a lot of broken men, tears, vomit. Good luck to Wiggo but what I really want to see is another Cavendish victory on Sunday.

Ankush July 18, 2012 at 10:17 am

wow, non-stop coverage. Eurosport crew will come up with all sorts of useless stories then.

I guess Cadel/Nibali will attack on the descent of Peyresourde. I hope this stage lives up to our expectations.

Bundle July 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

Why would they attack so late? To gain 20 seconds??

The Inner Ring July 18, 2012 at 12:02 pm

To avoid losing 2 minutes perhaps. We saw Evans try in the Alps but his attack backfired and he fell off the podium.

Bundle July 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I would say that the incumbent champion doesn’t give a damn if he’s second or fifth or ninth, and that’s why he attacked where he could really cause harm (and he did). But I’d say even more: all riders are expected to race for victory, whenever they have the slightest possibility of it.

Steppings July 18, 2012 at 10:20 am

Good article in the Telegraph and I hope the so called “celebs” are continually attacked until the whole sorry sad lot of them are brought to earth. Great stage looming today.

Roly July 18, 2012 at 10:47 am

Bit harsh on the Col du Soulor, the other approach not covered in todays race is a very beautiful climb and different in character. It also affords veiws across the valley to the route taken today between the Aubisque and Soulor. The Tormalet from this direction is a killer, just keeps on coming…..

I’m hoping that today is epic. Nibali to attack, gain a few seconds up the last climb and win on the descent to solidify his podium spot.

The Inner Ring July 18, 2012 at 11:02 am

The Soulour is my preferred climb. I just wanted to say it climbs the same mountain as the Aubisque so it’s the same song. I love the scenic start to the Soulor’s northern side with the narrow road and then the way it climbs through woodland before opening onto the cirque.

Roly July 18, 2012 at 11:03 am


pdmalcolm July 18, 2012 at 1:36 pm

When I last climbed it they were resurfacing it ahead of the 2010 Tour. They’d taken the surfacing off the last 6km… It was like riding through the 1920s!

BA's_Mohawk July 18, 2012 at 11:37 am

The cheese stall half way of the Soulor’s northern climb is possibly one of the most french things you’ll ever see. In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees and pasture, a wooden cheese shack, and nothing else. Love a bit of cheese me.

grumpyoldman July 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm

De Gaulle is reputed to have said:

How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?

Bundle July 18, 2012 at 11:50 am

Spandelles should be used as connection between Aubisque and Tourmalet. Demanding, beautiful, and unused. Can’t believe they’re not using it. Especially since this classic stage needs extra “gruellingness” to make up for the reduction in bike weight and other technical improvements.
As for today, Nibali should definitely aim at a 5 minute-victory. The 1991 Val-Louron stage should serve as script: all but the 10 strongest were eliminated on the Tourmalet climb by Chiappucci’s pace (this year it should be Basso, if it’s the last thing he does in his career, I think he could succeed if he makes a point of dropping inferior riders like Porte and Rogers); Induráin and Chiappucci broke away on the Tourmalet descent (this year it should be Nibali + someone else); the (often underrated) Aspin climb was where LeMond met the end of his glory days and “the race was won”; and on the final climb gaps just didn’t cease to increase, so that the 6th guy in the stage (that’s where Wiggins could be expected to come) was 6 minutes down. But, of course (and again), that classic stage was 232km long, and also included the Pourtalet before the Aubisque…

Roly July 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm

THe Tourmalet descent is awesome! I’m getting too excited just thinking about it

Chuffy July 18, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I thought the Christophe legend was more an illustration of overcoming ludicrous adversity and the pettiness of Desgrange’s rules? I don’t think I’ve read it with a spin that the penalty caused him to lose the Tour.

Tom July 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm

ITV4 claimed he was disqualified for it today.

Chuffy July 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm

When you say ‘ITV4’, do you mean P&P?

Tom July 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm


Bundle July 18, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Watching the Tourmalet has been depressing. No one but Voeckler seemed interested in anything than seeing the kilometers pass.

Adam July 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm

You’re so right, why don’t you pin on a race number and show them how it’s done.
You make a similar comment almost every stage. Voeckler is not interested in the GC and Wiggins is. In 20 years time people will remember as a Tour Champion, while a few cycling fans will recall TV as an animator with a handful of stage wins.

Chuffy July 18, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Exactly. Does anyone, other than a hardcore TdF fan, remember Jackie Durand these days? People might remember Wiggy as being a less than thrilling winner (Indurain anyone?) but they’ll remember him as a TdF winner.*

* – big assumption I know.

Bundle July 19, 2012 at 9:06 am

It was not about Wiggins or TeamSky doing their job, it was about the other teams letting the peloton climb this mountain at a snail’s pace. Liquigas started its movements one mountain pass too late, because we saw it was perfectly possible to isolate Wiggins and Froome, who anyway seem to be the strongest. But Wiggins was allowed to do only about 3kms of real solo effort upwards, when he could have forced to defend himself for much longer.
I will continue to demand harder racing any time I see it lacking.

Adam July 19, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Bundle, if riders could go faster, trust me, they would.
Read twitter, yesterday was so hot and long and hard that Millar and Cav said they spent the last climb puking all over themselves and Zabriske puked all night from the effort.
We can’t all make it look as easy as you must.

Steppings July 18, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Jacky Durand – now there was a rider who liked a break! nice rider to watch also.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: