Eight categorised climbs today, that’s more than we had during the first five days of the race and the points total available today is greater than the whole race so far. As a result, it’s a key stage for anyone with half an eye on the Mountains jersey, especially those unable to contest the final summit finishes.
The race starts in Issoire and heads south for a long day that will favour breakaways. This is rural France, the antithesis of Parisian chic and Mediterranean flair and life is typically modest. The Cantal area of France is famous for its chain of extinct volcanoes and many French TV viewers know its main city Aurillac because it’s often the coldest place on the weather forecast. It might be one of the most sparsely populated areas of France but expect good crowds, partly because it’s Sunday but because little else happens here, for a day, for a moment the tiny villages with their granite buildings and slate rooves become the centre of the world. It’s also worth nodding at Pierre Chany, the French journalist who covered the Tour 49 times and was L’Equipe’s chief cycling writer as he is from the area.
For me a breakaway is certain to go away and likely to stay away. Yesterday’s move went after 6km but I suspect today’s could take longer to form, with the rest day tomorrow hungry riders will want to race hard today and many a rider will want the mountains points and the chance of a stage win so expect a crazy first hour.
I won’t detail every climb this time for two reasons. First the route is up and down all day, there are climbs on the route that are not categorised, indeed we saw this yesterday when Rui Costa got the jump on Van Garderen towards the end of the stage, using the Côte de Faux to jump away… but this climb wasn’t listed. Second because there are so many climbs and rises the strategic point comes in the accumulation of these climbs rather than each of them.
Riding the cat’s tongue: Each climb is hard, the average figures can lie as often these are not regular gradients like the Alps, instead they feature double-digit percentages one minute, then level out only to rear upwards again. The diagram above shows this. The French say you have to “jouer du dérailleur” which translates literally as “playing with your rear mech” but it’s more akin to using the gears like you’d use a hand of cards. As a result the winning move could come from anywhere rather than an obvious set piece attack on an identified climb. This area of France often has rough roads, with a granular surface that is, to borrow a French phrase, “rough like a cat’s tongue”.
These ramps will probably spell the end of Thor Hushovd’s time in yellow but a collective effort might just help his individual talents survive for another day. For those surprised at his uphill abilities, he’s always been useful on hilly days, his “raid” on Stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France was a good example where he took off solo across several Alpine passes to secure precious green jersey points.
But for all the climbs don’t forget the finish is some way from the main ascensions, there is plenty of riding on wide plains that pass by fields of corn and grazing cattle. The final of the stage could allow a breakaway to be caught by the bunch if teams get organised.
Finish: the town of St Flour is split between the normal town below and a higher citadel on a hill. The finish climbs up to the top and the road has a few sharp corners. If several riders or even a group comes in together here then positioning matters because the wrong line can bring a rider to standstill.
Weather: improving. The race has been like one of those cartoons where the character is followed by a cloud but this is set to change. Milder weather with temperatures of 20-22°C (65-72°F) and this time… rain but lighter showers. It’ll be cooler when the race passes the volcanoes at altitude.