A summit finish and via the Col de la Lusette, one of the hardest climbs of this year’s Tour de France. Legend has it that even Bernard Hinault had to walk up. Today the question is more who’ll lose a few seconds on the climb because the risk seeing the race run away.
Wout sprinted: a 172 rider breakaway surged clear from kilometre zero. Okay, no attack happened, but did it matter? It would have been what race director Thierry Gouvenou calls a “4×4”: four riders get four minutes. Or rather 4x4x4 as in four riders get four minutes in a forlorn move. If some riders had attacked the only difference would have been the TV production could pan between the break and the peloton while TV commentators furnished up anecdotes about, say, Romain Sicard’s pet rabbit or which breed of cattle Cyril Barthe’s family raises (Blonde d’Aquitaine in case you need to know). Instead the crowd were more lively than the peloton, it wasn’t packed but people were still out on a Wednesday in September. The sprint came and Wout van Aert won. One day he sets the pace for the summit finish, the next he wins a bunch sprint. He’s probably back on domestique duties today.
The otherwise uneventful stage had a twist. The podium ceremony was delayed and then the news broke that Julian Alaphilippe copped a 20 second penalty for taking a bottle within the final 20km. It’s against the rules. A dumb rule? Well it’s for safety to keep riders focussed on the job rather than swerving one-handed to pick up food or grabbing “sticky bottles” and riding the car convoy late into a race, and on hot days the rule gets relaxed and this gets broadcast over race radio. Certainly it’s not as famous as the three kilometre rule or the one that gives riders who finish in a group the same time but it’s universally known in the peloton and ought to be fundamental for team helpers tasked with handing up food and drink. Only it seems the helper in question was Alaphilippe’s coach and cousin Franck, a new hire to the team and maybe a touch green when it comes to the UCI rulebook. To compound things, Alaphilippe overtook a team mate to grab the bottle, if was that thirsty he could have let his colleague collect it and he’d still be in yellow today.
The Route: 191km into the Cevennes. Yes Mont Aigoual featured in Tim Krabbe’s celebrated novel The Rider but the account is on the roads down the other side of the mountain so you won’t get to see them today, nor the place names like Salvinsac that are all too real. Today’s stage is 155km on fast, wide roads, even the first climb to the Cap de Coste climb is quick. It’s after Le Vigan that the race heads into the hills and the feel of the roads changes. The Col des Mourèzes is a steady climb with no surprises and so is the descent but the difficulty will come from the pace as riders need to get into position for what’s to come.
The Col de la Lusette is a tough climb, listed as 11.7km at 7.3%, the stats don’t tell the story and nor does the profile. Bernard Hinault famously had to walk up… or so goes the legend. Some say it was in 1980, others 1981, or it could have been 1985, maybe 1986. It was probably during the Midi Libre. Was it when he abandoned the race in 1980 or another year when he just had the wrong gearing on his bike and walked a few paces to his team car to get a spare bike with lower gears? The answers would spoil the tale, here’s a climb that defeated Hinault and that’s enough of a story.
Back in reality the climb starts on a sharp corner, there’s a ramp into a narrow hairpin bend which is chased by a 10% section. From here on the slope keeps changing, a flat section here, a 12% bit there and the gradient is meaner than the average. The steepest part is as the profile shows, a sustained section of 12-14%. There’s the 8-5-2 second time bonus at the top. The descent is a long straight line and any riders dropped before face a tough time trying to get back as a strong team like Jumbo-Visma ought to be able to keep the pace up.
The Finish: this time it’s as the profile suggests, at least for the wide road up to the small Mont Aigoual ski area. Here the road flattens out, a loop around the hilltop with a small descent 500m before the line.
The Contenders: the breakaway has a chance today, the problem is you need lots of horsepower for the flat 155km but the finish is for the climbers so the rouleurs won’t like the finish but the climbers won’t like the work needed to reach the foot of Mont Aigoual with a big buffer. If there’s no danger on GC Mitchelton-Scott won’t chase too hard because Adam Yates is only three seconds ahead of Primož Roglič on GC and so they’d surely prefer the breakaway to mop up the time bonuses. Alessandro de Marchi and Ilnur Zakarin (CCC), Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Ben Hermans (Israel), Tiesj Benoot and Nicolas Roche (Sunweb) fit the bill. There are plenty of others down on GC who might be able to win but are retained for team duties, eg at Cofidis Jesus Herrada will work for Guillaume Martin, Alexey Lutsenko will accompany Miguel Angel Lopez.
For the GC contenders it’s a strange finish, those that make the selection over the Col de la Lusette can hope to get their breath back for the finish, the stage result is not necessarily going to correlate with the best climber. Still Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) has won in Orcières-Merlette already so makes for an easy pick, among the GC contenders he’s got the best sprint, he’s got the strongest team and has a motive too with the time bonus.
The flatter final kilometre suits Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quickstep) who’ll be out with a point to prove today but can he hang on during the hardest part of the Col de la Lusette? Jumbo-Visma won’t wait and should be happy with Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) in yellow but only because he’s here for stage hunting right? Only he’s in the race lead and hasn’t sat up as he ought to, Jumbo might have a problem if Yates starts winning more. If Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) can sit tight for the sprint he’s got a chance.
|Primož Roglič, Julian Alaphilippe|
|Roche, de Marchi, Yates, Martin, Hermans, Zaka, Benoot|
Weather: windy at the start and a crosswind. It’ll be warm and sunny, 29°C and for the finish the wind will drop to a light breeze, a tailwind in the finish.
TV: live coverage from the start at midday to the finish forecast for 5.00pm Euro time. The intermediate sprint is around 3.00pm and the race reaches the hills around 3.45pm.