After one sprint stage it’s time to get back to the action with some climbs and Mont Brouilly with its miniature summit finish.
Stage 2 Wrap: this was supposed to be the boring, predictable sprint stage but ended in high drama. It was a long day, there was a long breakaway. Three solid rouleurs in Evaldas Šiškevičius, Anthony Delaplace and Mathias Brändle plus talented climber Tsgabu Grmay never got much more than seven minutes, the tightest of leashes. Too many teams were interested in a sprint finish including Etixx-Quickstep who did a lot of the early work. Come the sprint finish and Marcel Kittel was 65th, something isn’t right there.
Katusha too appeared to run out of riders and Alexander Kristoff missed out. Instead, coming around the final bend with 200m to go, Nacer Bouhanni lead out the sprint and Michael Matthews looked well placed to pass but they tangled yet somehow stayed upright. While a lot of the post-stage outrage focussed on the tussle by the barriers Bouhanni’s biggest fault was drifting diagonally across the finish line just prior to the contact. Bouhanni got relegated, Matthews got the stage and another 10 second time bonus to put him 14 seconds ahead. A slender lead but a flawless ride so far.
The Route: a lot of red dots on the profile but all the climbs before Mont Brouilly are big, steady climbs you can do in the big ring and on a wide roads too. They’re partially protected by pine forest and, after the feedzone, exposed among vineyards. The hard part here is not the gradient but the altitude. Nobody’s going to be gasping for air, instead it means colder temperatures on what is going to be a bone-chilling day already, the section through the feedzone will be 2-3°C colder than the rest of the day.
They climb Mont Brouilly for the first time – full detail in this Roads to Ride feature – and reach the finish line with 32km to go before a twisty descent then a loop around the countryside. The terrain is exposed among the vineyards as they pass by places like St. Joseph and Morgon and the roadmap reads more like a wine menu. This isn’t just for the anecdote, it means gentle slopes and more climbing. Most of the roads are small which means moving into position for the final climb is that bit harder.
The Finish: Mont Brouilly is a very difficult climb. The profile above doesn’t do it justice. Glance and it and you’ll think 3km at 7.7% is hard but not cruel but today’s climb is more like a staircase than the linear profile shown in the graphic suggests, one minute the road is flat then it rears up only to level out again and so on, this is especially so towards the top. It’s also very narrow meaning anyone who starts the climb in a bad position is going to struggle to make up ground, being 20th wheel can mean being a long way back.
The Contenders: nearly half the field is over three minutes down so a breakaway could be given some leeway if it includes riders who pose no threat to the overall classification. There’s a chance to take the mountains jersey and maybe stay away for the stage win of the move has the right combination of non-threatening riders. Any winner from a move will need to be a useful climber for the finish nor can they belong to a team GC ambitions because these squads will surely want to keep riders to help them in the finale. So some random mentions for Thomas de Gendt (135th overall), Julien Loubet (144th), Daniel Diaz (153rd) and of course Thomas Voeckler (129th). But the pressure among the top teams to deliver their rider into place means the pace will be very high and the chances of a move sticking are slim.
The narrow climb means a rider backed by a strong team has an advantage, they need riders to place them in the rush to the climb and then a climber or two to pace them on the early slopes.
Alberto Contador has a solid team and Rafał Majka he’s got a climber to accompany him all the way. The Spaniard got the jump on everyone in the Algarve uphill finish and could well subject everyone to that pistolero finish salute.
This is the big test for Geraint Thomas. We know he can handle intensity, he’s won Olympic gold in the track pursuit, but can he cope with the hill-rep style changes of pace alongside the climbers? I think so and as mentioned the other day he did well over this climb the last time the race crossed it in 2014. He’ll be after the time bonus too while there’s no doubting team mate Sergio Henao‘s ability on the climb like this but is the form there?
Movistar will back Ion Izaguirre, the Basque rider did an excellent prologue and is good on a punchy climb like this. Richie Porte is good in a finish like this. He’s been downplaying his form but 11th in the prologue says more than any pre-race expectation management talk.
Another tandem team is Lotto-Soudal with Tony Gallopin and Tim Wellens. The pair often train together and both appear on a similar good form with positions just outside the top-20 in the prologue.
Can Michael Matthews win? Normally you’d think not but who predicted his prologue win. He might be able to track the riders on the way up and in fact he has to in order to keep the jersey. He is a sprinter but handy uphill, you’ll remember he was the only rider who could or would match Philippe Gilbert up the Cauberg in the last Amstel Gold and that alone tells us Matthews can dance on the pedals. Simon Yates brings more options and it’ll be interesting to see if he’s deployed to help Matthews or can play his cards for the stage win.
Tom Dumoulin might not be a prime candidate but remember he beat Chris Froome uphill in the Vuelta last year on the awkward climb of the Cumbre del Sol and he’s always been a handy rider in the Ardennes before.
Ag2r La Mondiale have some cards to play. Alexis Vuillermoz loves these intense finishes, you’ll remember his Tour de France stage win at the Mûr-de-Bretagne last summer and he’ll make a useful decoy for Romain Bardet who of course can handle these climbs too. Pierre Latour is a strong climber too and the team has reconed the finish.
Finally a few more names to rattle through. Given the miserable weather Simon Špilak would have been an obvious pick but he’s off the race right now so gets discounted. Astana are backing Lieuwe Westra and L-L Sanchez but do they have the zip in their legs for the stage win? Like Arnaud Démare Arthur Vichot is an FDJ rider who went into a slump after winning the French championships but is now on the up again. I think he might be better for Sunday’s final stage. Last but not least Tom-Jelte Slagter won here before and is built for these punchy finishes but he’s not in stunning shape right now, maybe Paddy Bevin can be the surprise?
|Geraint Thomas, Romain Bardet, Tom Dumoulin, Ion Izaguirre|
|Vuillermoz, Porte, Matthews, Majka, Henao, Wellens, Gallopin, Slagter|
Weather: cold, wet and miserable with temperatures peaking at 7°C but down to 2-3°C mid stage and it will be raining along the way. On the plus side it won’t be too windy.
Local rider: Fumiyuki Beppu. This might be the last name you’d pick for a local midway in Paris-Nice. But the Japanese rider from Chigasaki on an American team doesn’t live far from today’s finish so he’s out on his training roads. The Sâone Ranger is the first Japanese rider to complete the Tour de France and speaks French and English, having lived in France for some time after racing as an amateur with the VC La Pomme team in Marseille, as did the likes of Dan Martin and Daryl Impey and the team has since become the Delko Provence pro team.
TV: coverage starts at 4.00pm Euro time and the finish is forecast for 5.15pm. It should be on the same channel you watch the Tour de France and/or Eurosport. If not then cyclingfans.com, cyclinghub.tv and steephill.tv all offer alternative feeds.