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.