The final week of the Tour de France sees the race head into the Alps. As soon as the route was unveiled last October the talk turned to the tough stages in the Alps, almost to the exclusion of what came before. Now we’ve had two weeks of hard racing with attacks and surprises along the way that have left riders tired and many are anxious about the stages to come.
Today has breakaway branded in bold on it although Peter Sagan and his Cannondale team might have second thoughts.
- Km 17.5 – Côte de la Montagne de Bluye 5.7km at 5.6% – category 3
- Km 48.0 – Col de Macuègne (1 068 m) 7.6km at 5.2% – category 2
- Km 156.5 – Col de Manse (1 268 m) 9.5km at 5.2% – category 2
Uphill from the start but on regular roads. The race heads into the Alps via main roads but often with a granular surface. The Col de Veaux (Veal Pass) is climbed but sans points, instead the Côte de la Montagne de Bluye is a regular climb, riders will do this this in the big ring. Onwards and and the Col de Macuègne marks another point for the breakaway riders to stretch the elastic.
After these climbs some wide valley roads. You can see the slope on the profile but note much of the road runs parallel to a railway line, a clue to the gradient. The race heads to Gap but doesn’t cross the finish line, it passes by the side of the town before climbing the Col de Manse above the town.
The climb is steady and on a wide road, some six or seven metres wide and with a few bends but long straight portions. The gradient is good for an attack but it’s not the ideal terrain for a rider to ambush his rivals. If someone gets away it’s likely to be by brute force than by surprise.
Almost every col in cycling is revered for the climb up but the Col de Manse is the exception, a mountain pass whose descent is infamous as a place where riders have lost the Tour de France and even ended their careers. In fact the descent is really part of the Col de Rochette but the Manse label seems to stuck. But note the two most memorable incidents are Joseba Beloki’s crash in 2003 when a heatwave meant melted tarmac helped provoke his crash whilst cold rain undid Andy Schleck in 2011. Yes the descent is notorious but it’s been tackled without incident in other years. It remains technical and with narrow roads, a festival for risk takers.
Once the descent eases, the run into town is predictable, a couple of roundabouts but nothing too technical.
A breakaway. But that word makes it sound so easy. Instead today could be the last stage where a breakaway could survive given only a time trial, mountain stages the Champs Elysées await. This means half the bunch will want to be in the move of the day and the fight will be fierce.
The only contradictory plan could be Cannondale with Peter Sagan. The Slovakrobat will fancy his chances in the sprint and if he doesn’t make the break, expect his team to chase.
It could be a day to play the French card. Apparently four out of the five last Stage 16s in the Tour have gone to a French winner. Sylvain Chavanel is an obvious pick, he was aggressive on the road to Mont Ventoux and can descend well and as Paris-Nice showed us, he can sprint too. We’re at the point in the race where the same names start gathering in the breaks, a natural selection where the strong riders are present whilst others endure ragged recovery. So look for Pierrick Fédrigo, a past winner in Gap, and also Arthur Vichot and Jérémy Roy too. Otherwise pick your breakaway contenders, think Johnny Hoogerland or Thomas de Gendt, Simon Gerrans and so on.
Finally for all the talk of the stage winner, if a break stays away then insurgency in the bunch is possible too. The descent to Gap was one of the moments where Andy Schleck lost the 2011 Tour and some might try to sneak time on their rivals here.
Weather: hot and sunny with the temperature at 31°C (88°F) and only a 5km/h breeze from the south-west.
TV: live coverage from 2.000pm Euro time. A shame since the start first hour or two could have more violent efforts than a game of Grand Theft Auto although by the time the live coverage starts we could still see the riders attacking each other. Tune in from 4.15pm to catch the Col de Manse with the finish expected an hour later.
A note on how to say rider names. Nairo Quintana is not “kwin-tana” but “kin-tana”. Czech rider Roman Kreuziger might have some zing in his legs but not in his name, it’s Kroy-zigger and not Kroy-zinger as many say. Poland’s Michał Kwiatkowski seems to confuse any but it’s only six syllables: Mee-how Kvee-At-Kow-ski.