If yesterday was the greatest hits of the Pyrenees, today is the experimental album. At just 143km, the stage has some tough climbing ahead of a summit finish.
- Km 27.5 – Col de Menté (1 349m) 9.3 kilometre-long climb at 9.1% – category 1
- Km 55.5 – Col des Ares (797 m) 6 kilometre-long climb at 5.3% – category 2
- Km 76.0 – Côte de Burs 1.2 kilometre-long climb at 7.6% – category 3
- Km 111.5 – Port de Bales (1 755 m) 11.7 kilometre-long climb at 7.7% – category HC
- Km 142.5 – Peyragudes 15.4 kilometre-long climb at 5.1% – category 1
The Route: the race starts at the foot of the final climb, only instead it heads out for a loop in the mountains and takes in some tough climbing.
The Col de Menté is the first climb. It’s reappeared in the Tour in recent years after a long absence following a crash by Luis Ocaña. The Spaniard was wearing the yellow jersey and finally giving Eddy Merckx a challenge but fell during a storm and left the race. It’s not the most technical of descents but it is hard to climb with ever-changing gradients as it picks its way up through the pastures. As the first climb it will be the perfect place for a breakaway to go clear.
Onwards and the route levels out, passing the accessible Col des Ares and then some more riding across flatter terrain before the Côte de Burs, a climb and not a pass and then it’s onto the intermediate sprint and the feedzone. If the album was an LP or cassette, now we’d turn it over for Side 2.
You can click on the diagram above to see a large version. The Port de Balès is a very hard climb but has not been used very often by races because it remained unsurfaced until a few years ago. It was first used in 2007 and notable because in 2010 Andy Schleck tried to attack but made a mess of a gear change and dropped his chain, leaving Alberto Contador to ride off, creating an petty polemic. Back to the present and the climb is very hard, steep but also with ever-changing gradients. It is an anti-Wiggins climb, the yellow jersey likes his climbs with regular gradients where he can deploy a high tempo and ride to a pre-set effort: impossible today. Also note the Tour organisers have defined the start from Ferrère but the road starts rising well before, it is longer than 11.7km mentioned by the race, in fact it’s close to 20km.
Then it’s over the top, a twisty descent and then back up the Peyresourde, where they came down yesterday. There’s a brief descent and then the final climb to the finish, to the ski station of Peyragudes.
The Finish: a short and steep climb awaits with a flat finish for the last kilometre. The final climb is the final chance, a ramp of 10% then eases gradually as the finish line comes closer.
The Race: if yesterday had the profile to encourage for a breakaway and see the main contenders mark each other, today should see the big names come out to play. Whether it’s on the Port de Balès or the Peyresourde remains to be seen but these shorter stages tend to encourage more dynamic racing amongst the GC riders. That said many are now camping on the overall positions. Nibali probably knows he can’t overhaul Wiggins and Froome, Van den Broeck knows he can’t get past Nibali and so on down the overall rankings, although Rolland and Pinot might want to gain time before they lose it in Saturday’s time trial; Rolland could be team duty today to mop up mountains points to protect team mate Voeckler but he’ll want the “first Frenchman overall” label too.
So the race will depend on who goes up the road in the breakaway and whether Team Sky lead the chase/tempo and whether other teams join in to help set up the leader for the stage. So we should see the usual breakaway suspects (Casar, L-L Sanchez, Vande Velde etc) in battle with Sky and others for the chance to win. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wiggins win today, a student of the sports history, he’d love to win a stage with his arms aloft and the flat finish suits him; but he might also let Froome off the leash as a reward too. All this presupposes Wiggins can cope with the climbing today…
Finally spare a thought for the race at the back, away from the TV cameras. Today’s short stage means riders will be fighting from the start to stay with the bunch and anyone dropped today could be eliminated, a cruel fate so late in the race.
Weather: a mixed day with sunny skies and clouds, and the possibility of a few showers and some fog around the climbs. Top temperatures of 23°C (73°F) in the valleys but cooler higher up. Almost no wind.
TV: another stage that will be broadcast live from start to the finish. It starts at 1.00pm Euro time with the finish planned for an earlier slot of 4.45-5.15pm.
Local Food: Frênette is a local drink made from the leaves of ash trees, part tonic, part moonshine depending on the maker.
Do: look through the clouds at the finish. Because any rider who makes it to the top should be able to see the Eiffel Tower and Paris in the distance, all that awaits is tomorrow’s stage and a time trial and then the Champs Elysées await.
Don’t: get too down, the 2012 Tour de France is almost finished and fans used to non-stop cycling on TV, press and internet coverage know it’s got to end at some point. But the usual post-Tour blues won’t be the same as the Olympic Games await, a summer world championships.