The first mountain stage of the race, some have dismissed today’s route as the main climb is too far from the finish, meaning there’s time for riders to regroup and recover instead of allowing an attacker to power to the finish. That’s true, but only just as the climb is so big that time taken isn’t easy to pull back.
The Tour’s handbook lists this as one of only three étapes de grande difficulté or “stages of great difficulty” owing to the climbing and the distance.
- Km 90.0 – Côte de Corlier 6.4 kilometre-long climb at 5.5% – category 2
- Km 151.5 – Col du Grand Colombier (1 501 m)17.4 kilometre-long climb at 7.1% – category HC
- Km 174.0 – Col de Richemond 7.2 kilometre-long climb at 5% – category 3
The Route: flat and easy to start with, the race leaves the wine town of Macon and heads across the plains of the Saône, going east towards the Bugey, an area of the Jura mountains in France. The first climb of the day is the Côte de Corlier, a steady ascension that shouldn’t pose any problems, if anything it’ll help the legs after the rest day. The race then crosses a plateau before descending.
The Intermediate Sprint: the race comes off the descent from the Plateau and then there’s a straightforward approach to the sprint along the valley road. The climbing before this point shouldn’t worry the likes of Sagan and Goss too much but others might be up the road to mop up the points. It comes right before the big climb.
The Grand Colombier: race director Jean-François Pescheux says the Grand Colombier is the hardest climb in France. A bit of hype is understandable. But consider this, the Col du Galibier from Valloire is 18.1km long and averages 6.9%. The Grand Colombier from Culoz is 18.1km long and averages 6.9%. Obviously the Galibier soars to 2645m meaning the air is thinner but in retort the Grand Colombier has sections at 12-14% along the way making it steeper in parts. But today the riders have no choice, the Grand Colombier awaits for the first time ever in the Tour de France.
At 17km this is a long climb but the distinctive aspect is the irregularity of the gradient. From the moment it leaves the town of Culoz it has steep sections where the road ramps up to a gradient of 12%-14% then flattens, then rises again and this happens several times on the way up. This makes it harder, especially for a rider who is struggling as the changes of pace are abrupt. Note the two green sections, brief moments when the big ring can be deployed and, if a rider has attacked, a chance to pull away whilst others behind look for someone to chase. Altogether the climb is probably 50 minutes long, an effort that is longer than climbing Alpe d’Huez and more technical.
Talking of technical, the descent is very tricky. Those steep slopes on the way up are mirrored on the way down and so a rider clear over the top can expect to stay clear on the way down as it’s hard to chase on such steep slopes although things ease after a few kilometres.
Col de Richemond: the profile at the top of the page is deceptive, instead look to the numbers which say this is 7km at 5%. In other words it is not much. It’s here where a chase can be organised. Indeed when the Dauphiné borrowed a similar route in the Dauphiné back in June, Evans jumped away with some BMC team mates but Sky got them back on this climb, including a chest-beating display of power by Bradley Wiggins. in It has a downhill section before the final sprint to the top. Unlike the Colombier, the descent off here is not technical with just a couple of hairpins and plenty of fresh tarmac.
The Finish: after the descent of the Col de Richemond the road climbs up to a village called Billiat and this looks is the last chance for a stage winner to attack if they are worried about being outsprinted by rivals.
Then it is a fast descent into Bellegarde with what looks like a detour via the town’s industrial estate and then an uphill finish. As you can see the last 2.5km drift upwards and the final kilometre averages 4.8%, enough to make the sprint tactical.
The Strategy: yes the top of the main climb is some way from the finish… but all the more reason to attack early on the Grand Colombier. I’m not sure this will happen but the ideal scenario for the challengers of Wiggins is to send some riders up the road in an early breakaway. Once the serious climbing begins the team leader attacks and then finds a team mate or two waiting for him up the road, to pace him for as long as possible. Sky will have – in their stock phrase – “trained for that” so they won’t let anyone get too far ahead. If Evans or Nibali wants to jump on the climb, ok. But they’ll be winched back in.
With a good chance that an early breakaway stays away – as happened in the Dauphiné when similar roads were used – it’s hard to pick a stage winner. But if the main contenders start racing hard on the Grand Colombier then the lead group will thin down very quickly and we should see the big names contest the uphill finish in Bellegarde. A stage win for Cadel Evans perhaps?
Weather: a top temperature of 23°C (73°F) but much of the stage will be cooler at altitude by a few degrees. A light breeze of 10km/h from the west offers the slightest of tailwinds. The foot of the Grand Colombier is surrounded by the mighty Rhone river and some marshland and riders say it makes the air very humid, making the start of the climb even more asphyxiating.
TV: live from 2.00pm Euro time with the finish expected between 5.00-5.30pm. As usual it is shown on many broadcasters around the world or see the likes of cyclingfans.com or steephill.tv for pirate internet feeds.
Local Rider: first a mention to the “Eagle of Bugey” Roger Pingeon who lives on the route near the feedzone in Hauteville. He won the Tour in 1967 and isn’t dissimilar from Bradley Wiggins as a tall rider with the rangy legs of a heron.
Less glorious but more touching, spare a thought for Maxime Bouet of Agr La Mondiale who was born nearby. His mother died of cancer in 2010 and her ashes were scattered across the top of the Grand Colombier. Once a week his father rides up the climb in tribute to his late wife and if there’s a rider trying to get in the breakaway today, it’s Maxime.
Do: if you’re a rider say merci to Christian Prudhomme and Jean-François Pescheux for including this route up the Grand Colombier because there are steeper roads to the top.
Don’t: confuse this with the Alps and the Col de la Colombière. The race goes into the Alps tomorrow but today uses the Jura mountains. As many are discovering – including the Tour organisers – there are more mountain ranges in France than the Alps and Pyrenees.