The final act and they’ve saved the best for last with an intense mountain stage that gets harder as it goes on with the Joux Plane and its toboggan-run descent into the finish as the climax to this year’s Tour de France. Once again it’s all live on TV from start to finish.
The Route: a brief neutral roll out and then the large valley road out of Megève, a descent until a sudden left turn onto the start of the Col des Saisies which they climb for a kilometre at 8% before turning off the slopes for a quick descent into Flumet, a town at Alpine crossroads.
The Col des Aravis is not as linear as it looks in the profile above. It begins with almost 2km at 10%, enough to form the gruppetto before it drops off and levels out for 2.5km. Then comes the ascension proper from La Giettaz, 7km at 7.5% and the Alpine experience all in one past a ski village, the sound of cowbells, hairpins, a tunnel and jagged peaks high above. The descent off the other side is fast and for the most part not too technical.
The Col de la Colombière is 11.7km long with a 5.8% average and for once the mean gradient is fairly representative of most of the climb, there are some 7% moments but the hardest part is the ascension’s length. The descent is in two parts, a fast run to the village of Le Reposoir with a vertiginous drop on one side and the cliff-edge mountain on the other and this is steep with some bumps in the road, awkward bends and several hairpins. After the village the road is faster and more predictable to the valley floor. There’s then 14km across the valley floor, a surprisingly industrial landscape, and then a 3km uphill approach to the start of the the Col de la Ramaz.
Rarely used in the Tour de France the Col de la Ramaz last appeared in the 2010 Tour de France where it ended the GC ambitions of Lance Armstrong, Alexander Vinokourov and Bradley Wiggins among others, mainly because it was the first Alpine ascent of the race and therefore the earliest opportunity to spot who didn’t have it; Armstrong’s chances were damaged by a prior crash on the approach. It’s a hard climb and who will get found out today? Two steep kilometres and then a breather through a tidy village called Messy before the road winds up past Alpine meadows for five kilometres. Then comes a hairpin and the road tracks the cliff-edge before entering a tunnel. This is the steepest past of the climb and optically confusing as the tunnel gives few clues to the rising gradient. Once past the tunnel the road eases soon after and passes around a large plateau area with a more gentle gradient.
The descent is mixed, some obvious sections but also a steep part with a series of hairpin bends linked by steep ramps and it’s here that they’ve been doing roadworks to try and keep the road open despite perpetual rockfalls. Once through the road opens up and joins the main road down from Les Gets to Taninges. Then comes 20km of gentle descent and the undulating valley road to Samoëns and the foot of the Joux Plane. This is a long stretch to condemn any lone moves over the Ramaz.
If only it was as easy as the profile. The Joux Plane is unusual for the way it snakes up through the meadows, it’s steep yet without the usual visual clues of vertical gain such as a steep drop off on one side or a snowy peak on the other. Daniel Friebe recounts in Mountain High that Chris Horner said it was “like 20% all the way up” while Dutch climbing legend Peter Winnen wrote it was “the nastiest climb in the Alps”. It’s not 20% and there’s worse in the Alps but it’s the way the Joux Plane feels harder than the profile that confounds, a steep start, a nasty middle section and upper section that goes on for too long. It’s the opposite of an engineered grade, the road is constantly pitching up and down.
It’s followed by an exciting descent that’s fast and has some tight bends, the kind of descent where local knowledge or elephantine memory of each bend counts as it’s steep and irregular. It dives down through woodland meaning there’s rarely a clear view of the road ahead, it’s often impossible to see beyond each corner and often to see the exit from the bend itself. They arrive in Morzine and there’s a final kilometre on the flat on a waving road before the finish line arrives.
The Scenario: Astana got to work yesterday and they’re likely to find Movistar and even BMC as allies today to race hard in order to shake up the race another time. Movistar have Nairo Quintana on the podium already, do they try and dislodge Romain Bardet and his sore legs or play it safe? Note the long valley sections in between the climbs, it’s hard to launch long raids here. Still even if the Col de la Ramaz is a long way from the finish but it can still be instructive. Is Chris Froome carrying any residual injury following his crash yesterday? Everyone wants to know and we’ll see if Astana and Movistar set to work to probe the yellow jersey’s health.
The Contenders: Richie Porte crashed yesterday but this didn’t stop him trying attacks in the finish only these were, appropriately enough, boomerang moves and he lost time. The podium is still possible for him and if that doesn’t work out then the act of trying could bring the stage win.
For Chris Froome the stage win is immaterial, he simply needs to finish within reach of his rival to sew up the race. If he looked sore and slower yesterday how much of this was down to his replacement bike with the wrong chainrings? Still if he’s feeling better then why not have a go on the Joux Plane and collect another win?
Romain Bardet has a mountain to climb. Ok four but a metaphorical one too, the prospect of winning the Tour de France. Slim, but what if he went to bed last night wondering of Chris Froome was injured, weak and prey? Yet sitting second overall is an awkward position, Nairo Quintana, Adam Yates and Richie Porte are all within one minute of him and surely he’s woken up with sore legs. Still he’s climbing well and descending even better.
Team Sky sets the pace, nobody can escape. It’s been a familiar theme ever since the 2012 Critérium du Dauphine, arguably the first time at the team strangled the life out of a race. Only back then one rider did escape the grip and it was Nairo Quintana who skipped away over the Joux Plane that year to win. So far, so prosaic but in reality Quintana’s looking better in the cooler weather. His problem is that he’s not looking that much better than everyone else. Alejandro Valverde is good for the flat finish in Morzine.
Astana did so much work yesterday and what did they get to show for it? Fabio Aru took back eight seconds and moved up one place overall. Still his surging attacks on the road to Le Bettex were something to behold after near invisibility prior to now in this race, in fact in this season. He’s on the up and could finally shake off his rivals. If you like omens then Samoëns, the town at the start of the final climb, is twinned with a place only a short spin away from the Aru family home in in Sardinia.
Did Adam Yates have an off-day? If he’s back to normal then he’s a pick to snip the stage win in a sprint among the main contenders. If Dan Martin sits tight on the climb while others attack he’s got a good sprint to snipe the win.Finally Joaquim Rodriguez was back to hanging with the front riders yesterday but represents no GC threat.
Among the breakaway picks Rafał Majka could still try again despite yesterday’s efforts, after all he doesn’t have to collect any more mountain points and what better way to prove he’s the real monarch of the mountains than to win a stage? Ilnur Zakarin didn’t try yesterday, was he saving himself for today? If so he’ll need to go clear early on the Joux Plane as his descending skills are still a big weakness. Jarlinson Pantano by contrast is an excellent descender, his problem is the climb but he can afford to lose 40 seconds on the climb before chasing on the descent and using his sprint to win. Let’s add Stephen Cummings too, out of the action yesterday but too dangerous to ignore.
|Jarlinson Pantano, Richie Porte, Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet|
|Quintana, Valverde, Majka, D Martin, Froome, Zakarin, Cummings|
Weather: 22°C in the valleys and a cooler 15°C at altitude and rain showers, some heavy, all day.
TV: live on TV from start to finish, from 12.55pm to 5.20pm Euro time.
Paris transfer: the riders stay in the Alps overnight before catching a flight on Sunday morning to Paris for the final stage.