The race leaves the Alps behind for a stage that should see a battle between the breakaway and the sprinters teams because many team have yet to win a stage and this is their last chance.
Stage 18 Review: Warren Barguil rode out of the yellow jersey group on the final climb, caught the remaining survivors of the breakaway including Darwin Atapuma and took an impressive stage win to seal his polka dot jersey. Assuming he makes it to Paris he’ll be a popular and satisfying winner of the mountains competition. Other recent winners either went on a raid precisely because they could not match the overall contenders on the climbs; some like Chris Froome won the jersey as an afterthought as they raced for yellow. It’s Barguil’s second stage win and he was a photo finish away from a third and he’s delivered on the promise that saw him win the 2012 Tour de l’Avenir and take the points and mountains jersey along the way too.
Behind Team Sky and Ag2r La Mondiale both did their mountain train routine and it thinned down the field and helped eject Fabio Aru but it’s the tactical equivalent of a fire blanket, it smothers the race. Romain Bardet again attacked but was closed down before Chris Froome had a go and got a gap. This time Rigoberto Urán closed him down on the small descent through the Casse Déserte area and the ease which he did this does provide something to extrapolate for Saturday’s time trial. Bardet tried again in the final kilometre and once again could not shake his rivals but managed to get the last time bonus on the line, proof that the top three are so inseparable that the artifice of time bonuses is needed (Uran has collected 22 seconds, Bardet 14, Froome 12). With that the Alps are done and the overall classification has actually tightened among the top-3 while the rest, notably Fabio Aru, fell away.
The Route: 225km, the longest of the race. Like Wordsworth’s journey down the Simplon there’s a sadness as the race turns its back on the Alps for another year. They start in Embrun, home to the majestic artificial lake and then take two proper climbs rather than the easier valley road, the first is 4.7km at 6% but with a steep section over 10% along the way. Then it’s via Sisteron, a regular on the route of Paris-Nice, and more rolling roads.
The Col du Pointu, “Pointy Pass”, is listed as 5.8km at an unpointy 4.1% but it’s really a 10km uphill ride and if the average gradient is low it’s got some 7-8% bits on the way up where it’s 45km to the finish. There’s a reciprocal descent and is familiar from the 2016 Paris-Nice. It’s then around the Luberon and flat roads to the finish.
The Finish: a flat run through the town of Salon-de-Provence. The final kilometre has a criterium touch with two 90° left bends in the finish but they’re regular corners. Then there’s a 400m finishing straight that dips slightly before rising to the line. Again it was the same finish as Paris-Nice in 2016 when Alexey Lutsensko won solo that day.
The Contenders: half the peloton will fancy its chances today. Let’s start with the sprinters because now Marcel Kittel is gone suddenly a lot of them and their teams will fancy their chances today but only if they can contain the race so the likes of André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Dylan Groenewegen (Lotto-Jumbo) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) are their team’s strongest cards to play with the first two often capable of getting over a climb like the Col du Pointu when others cannot. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) is more versatile and could go in a breakaway or wait for the sprint or perhaps his team mates go clear? The same for Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) who could be beaten in the sprint by the names cited above but Sunweb could hatch a plan on the Col du Pointu to suit him.
Many teams have not won a stage so far and it’s now or never given there’s tomorrow’s time trial and the Parisian sprint. So Bahrain-Merida, BMC Racing, Cofidis, Dimension Data, Fortuneo-Oscaro, Katusha-Alpecin, Movistar, Orica-Scott, UAE Emirates and Wanty-Groupe Gobert will try to flood the early breakaway, preferably with more than one rider to give them options and tactical cards to play. Other teams are bound to join in too. Given this it means the breakaway is going to be sizeable and therefore much harder to bring back. Who? Spin that wheel but three random names: Greg Van Avermaet and Stefan Küng (BMC Racing) and the versatile Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac)
|Edvald Boasson Hagen, André Greipel|
|Bouhanni, Matthews, Degenkolb, GVA, Cummings, Küng|
Weather: warm and sunny with a top temperature of 33°C. This is mistral country, the wind and not the font, but there will only be a 20km/h breeze from the south so the possibility of racing in the crosswinds looks low… update: this has changed and there’s no the chance of 40km/h gusts from the south so the section from Lourmarin onwards with 35km to go is exposed to crosswinds.
TV: live from the start at 12.15pm CEST with the finish forecast for 5.45pm CEST. Watch the start to see what happens and ideally tune in ahead of the Col du Pointu from 4.30pm CEST onwards.