The first of two days in the Alps and a giant stage awaits. This year’s race has a theme of short steep climbs but today reverts to a classic Alpine route where duration and altitude matter more than the gradient… and so does the direction of the wind on the final descent because it will either reward or condemn an attack on the Galibier.
Stage 16 Review: Team Sunweb may have a German flag but their Dutch DNA showed as the split the race to pieces in the crosswinds and across the Ardèche plateau. Meanwhile the masters of the crosswind Quick Step were, for once, on the receiving end as Marcel Kittel was dropped, Philippe Gilbert abandoned and Dan Martin was among those blasted by the crosswinds to lose time. Sky split the field and Romain Bardet had a nervous moment but Oliver Naesen, one of the best signings made for this year, helped float him across to the lead group. It made for a lively stage with action from start to finish where Michael Matthews took a second stage win. Just like in Rodez he seemed to be waiting for his rivals to make their move as if he was not looking at the finish line but his rivals. He won but only after drifting across the road to the annoyance of John Degenkolb but the Australian didn’t close the door.
The Route: a 183km clockwise tour around the Massif des Ecrins via classic route. There’s a lumpy approach the first pass of the day, the Col d’Ornon which is one of those climbs where one side is very different than the other. They take the easier side, 5.1km at 6.7% and then descent the harder side, it’s a technical descent down to the valley. It’s perfect for Michael Matthews to attack over and try to get to the intermediate sprint where 20 points await, not enough to put him in green but enough to narrow the gap to just nine points. Minutes after the intermediate sprint the road starts climbing…
The Croix de Fer is a giant of a climb. Listed as 24km at 5.2% it reads like a long gradual climb, the kind trucks could get up but the average is deceiving. It starts climbing with some solid 8-9% gradients for the first six kilometres, and all on a reasonably straight road which allows the TV moto cameras to pan up the peloton to inspect the early damage. Then comes a steep descent and a matching steep rise which then levels out as they climb beyond the treeline up the Col du Glandon, another descent but this time less steep and the road that rises up after is less steep and then a final traverse to the Col de la Croix de Fer where we’ll see if the Croix de Fer, an iron cross, is there are talk of theft over the winter. It’s followed by a fast descent that has its moments but is mainly a ski station access road with the accompanying predictable width and signage.
After a short valley section and the feedzone the Col du Télégraphe starts steep with some 10% ramps amid the early hairpins before levelling out and becoming a steady climb as it rises above the Maurienne valley. At the pass it dips quickly, a four kilometre pause to consume food for the climb to come. The Galibier begins out of Valloire at 1417m above sea level or roughly the same height as the top of the Grand Colombier. The climb is in two parts, the approach to Plan Lachat which has its moments but is generally steady and then the post-Plan Lachat area which is eight kilometres of 8-10% all above 2,000m above sea level on exposed terrain.
The descent is in three parts, first the run down the Galibier which is steep, twisty and fast for nine kilometres. Then they reach the Lautaret pass, a large traffic artery and it’s 10km at 5%, the kind of road you need to pedal hard to keep moving but at the same time it can be hard to close gaps. For illustration a recent winner over the Galibier and down the Lautaret, Mauricio Soler, resisted the chase not because of the brute power but just because it’s hard to close the gap down a false flat. The closer they get to the finish the more the slope levels out. The Lautaret is famous for its afternoon wind, how a calm morning on the road can see the breeze pick up. Today the wind isn’t forecast to get up too much but a 10-15km/h headwind is still pesky to a lone rider and teams will be dispatching their amateur meteorologists to the descent check the conditions before phoning in the results because this can determine whether a breakaway works or not, a headwind can condemn a lone rider, a tailwind could define their career.
The Finish: the flamme rouge is on the main road then there’s a roundabout with 500m to go before a 450m finishing bend that’s slightly uphill.
The Contenders: Warren Barguil is hard to look past for a breakaway. He can secure the mountains jersey today and given the way he’s climbing take a second stage win. Easier said than done but he does make it look easy with that effortless pedalling action.
The main GC contenders are hard to pull apart. Among the top-4 Rigoberto Urán probably has the fastest sprint ahead of Romain Bardet but there could be more in the mix, Simon Yates is fast too and Dan Martin has more room now, perhaps he has to settle for the stage win, hardly a resignation but this time the others can see him sneak away without posing a threat. Unless of course Chris Froome takes flight on the Galibier and solos to the stage win he’s yet to claim.
Alberto Contador has room to attack now, he fell out of the top-10 yesterday so could go clear on the Galibier without threatening the others. Among others for a long range breakaway maybe Esteban Chaves reminds us what he can do, Thibaut Pinot‘s over his illness and Bauke Mollema tries for another stage.
|Rigoberto Urán, Romain Bardet, Dan Martin
|Contador, Froome, Yates
Weather: warm and sunny to start with 29°C in the valleys. Cooler later as clouds appear and there could be showers or a sudden thunderstorm later.
The big factor today is the wind on the final descent of the Col du Lautaret the finish. The Lautaret’s headwind is notorious and if it picks up it can ruin anyway breakaway attempts or, via race radio, damped any attacking ambitions. Currently the forecast is for a calm run to the line but reality may prove otherwise.
TV: live from the start at 12.10pm CET with the finish forecast for 5.35pm CET.