The Queen Stage of the race? Perhaps but as Christian Prudhomme’s revolutionary fervour rages royalist pretensions are out and instead of a regal mountaintop finish we get a short wall of a climb. But there’s nothing egalitarian about this finish, it’s highly selective and could well crown the winner.
Stage 5 Wrap: the stage started in Crêches-sur-Saône, which, if you allow some accentuated liberty, is the most appropriate place for this race. Last year saw Andrew Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte in the mix and now we see Carlos Betancur, Geraint Thomas, T-J Slagter, Wilco Kelderman and other young riders in the mix. All the stage winners so far in the race are eligible for the white jersey too.
Voeckler attacked early but no chance. Instead Sylvain Chavanel went up the road in a group and took the mountains jersey. In the words of another rider when Chavanel goes in the break it’s “big watts” to bring him back. The inevitable sprint finish was thwarted thanks to Carlos Betancur who attacked with Jacob Fuglsang and Bob Jungels. Betancur attacked on the descent – still using gravity to his advantage? – and showed us why he outsprinted John Degenkolb a few weeks ago. It was a clever move and the Colombian has a sharp racing brain. If he’s this good now, imagine what could happen once he’s at his racing weight?
The Route: East! The roads barely need to go south now. The focus might be on the last two kilometres of the stage but this is the longest stage in the race and has some big climbing on the way to help ensure the riders are cursing by the time they get to Tourettes and the start of the final climb. The race reaches Fayence but heads out for a loop via the Col de Bourigaille, 8.2km at 5.9% which if it isn’t that hard is enough to drain the energy and the descent will test the nerves.
The Finish: there are two parts to the climb, the flat approach and the uphill section. The approach is so important because everyone needs to be at the front but there’s only space for 20 riders in the right place. This means a frenetic effort with team mates trying to pace n’place their leaders all while others are doing the same.
As for uphill, the graphic above doesn’t do the final climb justice. Yes it’s short and yes it’s steep but it’s the irregularity that’s the hard part. It’s 1.2km at 10% but hits 22% along the way. You need to hit the steep sections hard and then accelerate on the flatter parts. Although known as le mur, or “the wall”, a staircase is a more apt description with steep flights interrupted by short landings. It eases by the hairpin bends before the finish line but by then the damage is done.
The Scenario: because the overall classification is still up for grabs several teams have an interest in controlling the race. But today’s route renders the sprinters redundant so it’s left to Team Sky to chase and others will go up the road knowing there’s more chance of staying away. Behind we should see the Col de Bourigaille thin the field before the showdown on the wall.
The Contenders: we should see the same names who thrived on Mont Brouilly, plus some extras who had mechanicals before like Rafał Majka. Carlos Betancur is the obvious pick, he won the Tour du Haut Var on the same roads just a few weeks ago but is still a little bit heavy. T-J Slager is now obvious and might not get as much room but he looked very smooth on Mont Brouilly. Geraint Thomas has the luxury of leadership, he can follow the moves – easier said than done – and punk rivals for the time bonuses.
Two other young riders as dark horses: IAM’s Sébastien Reichenbach is an excellent climber and will win big one day, why not today? Eduardo Sepulveda is quietly having a good race for Bretagne-Séché. Others to watch are Arthur Vichot and the OPQS pair Zdeněk Štybar and Jan Bakelants to see how they climb. Note Vincenzo Nibali seems a little short of shape, attack on the top of the climb rather than before.
Guide Wolber: the Mur de Fayence is a regular in the early-season Tour du Haut Var. In 2012 the winner was a certain Jonathan Tiernan-Locke who is waiting for his biopassport prosecution to commence. The latest is the same as it was in December, that the UCI has asked the UK anti-doping agency to bring a prosecution but there is no more news. These cases do take time how long can a rider be “parked” pending prosecution?
On a more cheery note, think of Paris-Nice as a laboratory. Instead of a revolution, let’s consider the race as an experiment, an exploration of new terrain. Can a series of short hills liven up a World Tour pack? Yes and the Mur de Fayence is just one example. This race isn’t unique as Christian Prudhomme seems keen to avoid bunch sprints, think the Mur de Bretagne in 2011 or this summer’s finish on a ramp in Gérardmer. France has its hills and its mountains but also a proud tradition of taming nature and central planning. There are laws that stipulate the maximum gradient of a road in France meaning no Zoncolan is possible. With this Emperor Prudhomme and his team are reduced to finding what’s left and what’s legal and Paris-Nice as well as the Dauphiné are acting as pioneer events to test roads before the Tour arrives. Don’t be surprised to see Fayence and Mont Brouilly in the Tour de France soon.