The Queen stage in the Alps and we’ll see if Tadej Pogačar is mentally hungover today or has “ants in his legs” as they say in French. There will be a big battle for the breakaway.
Combloux the doors off: well that settles it, Vingegaard and Pogačar had been inseparable for days and then in one stage Vingegaard gained 1m38s, and not just any stage but in just 22km. And this was the gain on Pogačar, the best of the rest was Wout van Aert more than a minute further back with only Pello Bilbao and Simon Yates within three minutes. This blog tipped Vingegaard for the win, just. But as for the winning margin, nobody saw that, in statistical terms this was long tail distribution to put it mildly. In more florid terms, the French commentary on TV, radio or podcast was often using the verb écraser, to crush.
But you could see it coming on the TV coverage. Vingegaard started fast up the first climb and by manual timing was about 15 seconds up on Pogačar, then on the descent through Passy he was tearing down to the point that it looked like his tires would be screeching as he carved the corners. At the start of the Domancy climb he was 31 seconds up, daylight but this was only the start.
Pogačar’s tactic of a bike change looked wrong from the outside, yes he was able to run an even deeper front rim for the start of the course but lost time in the bike change itself, his rhythm seemed broken and his upright position for the final section of the course gave him the air of a cycle tourist looking for their hotel in Combloux. But we don’t know him, nor his team’s calculations, how heavy is the Colnago TT bike, how is the state of his wrist? Above all this is academic, he was 31seconds down at the foot of the climb before the bike swap. If this was a boxing match we’d call it a knockout but it’s not, especially as Pogačar was himself well over a minute quicker than Van Aert. And they’re back in the (chain) ring today.
The Route: 165.7km and 5,400m of vertical gain, this is the “Queen Stage” of the Tour de France and a route packed with Alpine royalty. The stage starts with an unmarked climb out of St. Gervais, the neutral section’s a warm-up in itself and then the main road dash out out of Megève before the Col des Saisies, a long and scenic climb but the 5.1% average is softened by a descent two thirds of the way up, most of the time it’s 6-7% and so a place for the climbers to get in the day’s breakaway. It’s got a fast descent with some long bends that can be taken at speed but this means you can quickly run out of road too.
Next comes the Cormet de Roselend, a majestic climb with picture-postcard scenery, here climbed the direct route via the Méraillet and its long, regular ramps. Another fast descent awaits and then a valley section to Aime, at the foot of the La Plagne resort.
The Côte de Longfoy is the Col du Tra to locals and up a regular road, but 6.5km at 7.5% makes it hard. After Notre Dame du Pré the route funnels into a small road that tips downhill with getting close to 30 hairpin bends and all with a wilder feel, this is the opposite of Alpe d’Huez and its engineered bends, more a mule path that got tarmacked, but it’s not dangerous by itself, more it’s tiring as it demands concentration, there’s barely a moment to eat and drink.
The Finish: new for 2023 is the start of the Col de la Loze, the road leaves Brides-les-Bains but this is not the direct road to Méribel, instead it’s up to Courchevel and then around the balcony road to Méribel, it’s a longer and more gradual climb, but 14km at close to 6% is plenty for just an approach road.
The road climbs through Méribel and then the Col de la Loze proper starts. It’s a very unusual climb, TV just doesn’t do it justice. For starters it’s not a road but a cycle path and consequently narrower than usual. It’s also very irregular, the pitch changes so often as it climbs through the forest, riders will be going up and down the gears all the time and this makes it hard to get into a rhythm. There’s 20% for 50m, then flat, 12%, then a 6% breather and so on, like some demented BMX course, and it keeps doing this, the average gradient per kilometre tells us little. The path emerges out of the woods with a series of tight hairpins and the road becomes less erratic. The profile above misses the brief descent within the final 2km and then then it kicks up again with an 18% wall before the pass. There’s the 8-5-2 time bonuses at the top and also 40 points for the mountains competition for the first rider, it’s an HC climb but with double points as well as the Henri Desgrange for the high point of the Tour.
What goes up must go down and the cycle path continues downhill. It’s narrow and steep with some awkward corners before reaching the upper parts of the Courchevel ski resort and they’ve put air mattresses here for some of the bends. After the flamme rouge there’s a small tunnel, a left turn and it’s around to the “altiport” airport runway and a steep 350m climb to the line that maxes out at 18%.
The Contenders: can the breakaway stick? There’s a good chance with the length of the stage, it allows the escapees to build up a buffer. Jumbo-Visma want to control the race but they’ll be watching Pogačar in the same way a cook watches a pot of milk on a stove, and less worried about everyone else although for UAE Adam Yates is a wildcard to play, eight minutes down but look to see if he launches early; if not he can move late and won’t be a priority to close down.
Giulio Ciccone (Lidl-Trek) is in form and will want to be in the move today to collect mountains points so he can do for stage and the points. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) has been active in the breakaways but this can be a hindrance with accumulated fatigue.
Still Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) is the obvious form pick, and Tadej Pogačar (UAE) has nothing to lose.
|Ciccone, Vingegaard, Pogačar|
|Bilbao, Pinot, Martin, A Yates, Poels, Kwiatkowski|
Weather: warm and sunny, 31°C but with the chance of rain and the wind could gust in places depending how and where the clouds build up.
TV: KM0 is at 12.30pm and the finish is forecast for 5.20pm CEST. Tune in early for the scenery and sport alike.