The first mountain stage of the race with the Planche des Belles Filles “summit finish”, a hard climb and the first time we’ll get a a vertical pecking order among the contenders for the overall win. All without Peter Sagan.
Stage 4 Review: the biggest news of the day didn’t happen during the stage, it was the UCI jury’s decision to disqualify Peter Sagan for “seriously endangering” other riders in the paraphrased words of Philippe Marien, president of the jury. Marien’s word’s matter because UCI rule 12.1.040.10.2.2 does allow for a rider to be thrown out of a stage race for a “seriously” irregular sprint. Harsh? Certainly. Sprints are regularly full of tension as riders fight for wheels and space and there’s frequent contact and danger, both voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary as in almost nobody wants to harm a rival but they have to defend their position and push for openings, all while travelling at 60km/h. This time Mark Cavendish tried to come past Peter Sagan. Sagan put an elbow out… but this seemed to be only after Cavendish was tipping over, as if Sagan was reflexively trying to correct his balance and trajectory rather than bodycheck Cavendish but the jury didn’t see it this way. The irony is that Sagan stayed upright and this gave the impression that he downed Cavendish for his advantage but had this been another rider perhaps they’d have fallen after tangling with Cavendish and the commissaires would not have been so zealous? It leaves a lot of questions and makes you wonder if the UCI could be better at explaining their decisions, for example to walk or talk through the video evidence they saw?
Otherwise it was a long stage with Guillaume Van Keirsbulck attacking from the start and nobody else came with him. The Wanty-Gobert team have been attacking everyday and it was a surprise to see nobody come with him, shades of Armindo Fonseca’s fruitless solo break last year. “GVK” built up a lead of 14 minutes but The inevitable sprint occurred and there was an earlier crash that took down Geraint Thomas among others before the 1km banner, a sign of the nerves. In the final metres Arnaud Démare crossed Nacer Bouhanni but no crash so it was tolerated by the commissaires and the French champion opened up that big power he’s got on the slight uphill run to the line to overhaul Alexander Kristoff for the win.
The Route: 160km and it’s up and down all the way to the intermediate sprint which is chased by the first climb to Esmoulières, 2.3km at 8% and after the KoM point the road keeps on rising as they cross the Plateau de Mille Etangs, the “thousand lake plateau” that is Thibaut Pinot’s training grounds, to reach the Col des Croix.
The Finish: A sharp right turn and the road soars. The climb is only 5.9km long and averages 8.5% which is steep enough. The reality is that the climb is frequently much steeper, the opening ramp is 14% and that red part of the climb on the profile? It includes a descent. After a long steep ramp to the first hairpin, things then ease with a variety of steep inclines and flatter sections. The finish sees the road get progressively steeper, culminating in final 300 metres where the road bends round to the line at 14% and a section at 20% to the line.
The Contenders: this won’t be as decisive as 2014 when the race last visited this climb because that was a full-on mountain stage, today’s route is not as tough. Thibaut Pinot? Yes these are his home roads but his form isn’t great after the Giro to contest a straight summit finish, unlike 2014 when he was second behind Nibali. Instead tomorrow’s stage or Sunday and other mountainous routes later on suit him more right now.
Richie Porte (BMC Racing) is the prime pick. He’s in good form and showed it in Longwy. He’s also punchy for short climbs like this. But he’s far from a certainty, today is all about proving what he did in the Dauphiné and showing if he’s built on June.
Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas? Froome has won here before and what better way to ruin Richie Porte’s ambitions with a stage win and take the yellow jersey because he’s only 12 seconds down on GC and a 10 second time bonus awaits. It’ll be interesting to see what Thomas does, he won a 16 minute time trial, can he win a 16 minute climb? As ever Team Sky have domestiques who could captain other squads, watch Mikel Landa and Sergio Henao too.
Fabio Aru seems to be climbing very well. He should be at ease on the climb but how will cope with the fast approach and the fight for position? Astana have some tough bodyguards but still, thundering to the foot of the climb isn’t his ideal scenario. After a relatively slow (safe?) time trial Jacob Fuglsang was good in Longwy so should be up there but if he’s only just found winning ways a win here is a big ask.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)? This is an explosive climb and that ‘s not his thing but people say he’s climbing very well and his light body is suited to the steep gradients and changes in pace.
Daniel Martin (Quick Step) is a good pick for a sharp climb, he can make searing accelerations and has a finishing kick that almost troubled Sagan in Longwy.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) promised to work on his climbing after the Dauphiné. An outright stage win here seems hard, the fast approach and then dropping or surging past everyone seems improbable for someone who can often track the very best uphill but has often won through audacious attacks rather than W/kg.
Rafał Majka is the dark horse pick. Excluded from the pre-Tour predictions, I’m regretting not giving him at least a chainring now. The Pole is climbing very well and may get a little bit of room but he’s only 49 seconds down on GC. He’s unlikely to press the pedals harder but it would be quite the statement from Bora-Hansgrohe. Louis Meintjes (UAE Emirates) should be up the there but his team might struggle to place him and a win is hard to see. Finally the Orica-Scott pairing of Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates could show. Chaves ought to be good but his form is still in question. Yates has held the Strava KoM after living in the region as an amateur and we’ll see if his time loss in Longwy was an anomaly but neither seem like firm picks.
Can a breakaway stick? If it’s a yes/no question then no because the big teams will up the race to place their leaders into position on the approach so it’s hard for a move, plus many breakaway artists will surely have there eyes and legs set on this weekend’s mountain stages?
|Chris Froome, Dan Martin, Fabio Aru
|Majka, Thomas, Quintana, Bardet
Weather: hot and sunny with a top temperature of 32°C.
TV: live from the start at 1.20pm CET with the finish forecast for 5.15pm CET.