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Tour de France preview, part 4: Key stages and prologue preview

The Tour de France is a long, long race, where both disaster and opportunity hide unseen around every corner. A tough mountain climb, a mass accident which splits the field, a puncture or a broken chain at an inopportune moment, even an apparently innocuous crosswind – all these things can, at any given moment, potentially damage any of the contenders’ yellow jersey aspirations beyond repair.

Having said that, some of the Tour’s 21 stages present more obvious pitfalls than others. For instance, the flat sprint stages generally have little bearing on the fate of the yellow jersey. And the final stage to Paris is little more than a procession – there is an unwritten rule that you do not attack the yellow jersey – and a homecoming jamboree for the sprinters on the Champs Élysées.

But here are my six stages to watch out for. They are the ones most likely to cause significant time gaps among the leaders, or at the very least provide the most explosive action. Odds are the Tour will be won and lost on one of the following:

Stage 3: Wanze > Arenberg Porte du Hainaut (213 km)

What would otherwise be a fairly dull, by-the-numbers sprinters’ stage as far as the GC contenders are concerned will be shaken – quite literally – into life as the race passes over seven sections of cobbled roads totalling 13.2 km, with 10.9 km coming in the last 28 km of the stage.

All the ingredients are there for a potentially catastrophic high-speed crash. The cobbled sections are narrow and bumpy, which will string out the main bunch. The peloton will almost certainly be in pursuit of an early escape group, so speeds will be high. The sprinters’ teams will all be fighting for position at the front of the pack. And the teams of the main yellow jersey contenders will want to do the same to ensure their leaders are in front of any accidents, not behind them. So there will most likely be more people than normal fighting over a smaller patch of bumpy road, all at full racing speed.

Everyone may get through unscathed, resulting in the usual bunch sprint and no time gaps. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

The last time the Tour featured a cobbled section – a mere 3.9 km on stage three of the 2004 edition – Iban Mayo went down in a high-speed crash in the middle of the peloton as the exact scenario outlined above unfolded. The Spaniard was badly banged up and lost nearly four minutes, killing his yellow jersey aspirations before the race had properly started.

Everyone will want to avoid the same fate this year, so expect tensions to be running high. The Tour will not be won on this early stage, but one or more of the contenders could certainly lose it.

Stage 8: Station des Rousses > Morzine-Avoriaz (189 km)

It is possible that the previous day’s stage, with six categorised climbs of increasing difficulty culminating in the final second category climb of the Côte de Lamoura, may catch out one of the GC contenders. In all likelihood, though, someone will send their team to the front to ride a fast enough tempo to dissuade anyone who fancies chancing their arm.

It’s more likely that this stage, featuring this year’s first two category one climbs and finishing at the ski village of Avoriaz – and with the benefit of the rest day to follow – will be the first real test for the leading riders. Historically, this was where Lance Armstrong would launch one of his trademark attacks, but in similar circumstances at Verbier last year it was his then-teammate Alberto Contador who attacked. As at Verbier, the ascent of Morzine – 14 km at an average gradient of 6.1%, but with a distinct kick-up near the top – is not the most taxing, but it is attractive enough for someone who is confident enough to lay down a marker and eke out perhaps 30 seconds or so on some of his rivals.

Look for Contador or Andy Schleck to attack in the closing kilometres as the gradient picks up, and for those GC riders who are lacking slightly in form to be exposed as a result.

Stage 14: Revel > Ax 3 Domaines (184.5 km)

The first category climb of Ax 3 Domaines last featured on the Tour in 2005, when it turned out to be a defining stage. Jan Ullrich‘s T-Mobile team successfully isolated Lance Armstrong, only for the American to absorb every attack and then ride away from the big German, gaining over 30 seconds en route to his seventh Tour win.

This year, it comes at the end of the first of four punishing days in the Pyrenees, and while the prospect of the following three stages will make the leaders think twice before attacking on the final 7.8 km climb, the fact it comes right off the back of the 15.5 km, 7.9% climb of the Port de Pailhères should apply considerable pressure to what will be a very small group of elite riders by the time they approach the upper slopes of the final climb. No one will win the Tour decisively today, but the group of genuine contenders will undoubtedly whittle down further on what is sure to be an attritional first day in the Pyrenees. It could also be a key day in the King of the Mountains classification if a climber is brave enough to strike out on his own over the top of the Pailhères.

Stage 16: Bagnères-de-Luchon > Pau (199.5 km)

On day three of four in the Pyrenees, this stage piles on relentless pressure from the start, with an immediate 11 km ascent of the Col de Peyresourde followed by the 12.3 km climb up the Col d’Aspin, and then the first ascent of the Col du Tourmalet (the highest point in this year’s Tour), 17.1 long kilometres at an average of 7.3%. From the top of the Tourmalet, there is stil the best part of 130 km to the finish, including the 29.2 km climb of the Col d’Aubisque. At least the riders will then be able to enjoy (if that is the right word) a gentle 60 km run down to the finish in Pau and the blessed relief of the final rest day.

With the added bonus of a non-racing day to follow, a small group of climbers and GC riders could make a decisive break on the Tourmalet and stay clear until the finish. It could be the kind of day on which an alliance between Saxo Bank and RadioShack might come together to try to isolate Contador from his Astana teammates and set him up for multiple attacks on the Aubisque.

Regardless, it is also likely to be a decisive day in the race for the polka dot jersey. And it will definitely be a day on which the sprinters will be carefully judging exactly how slowly they can afford to go to avoid elimination.

Stage 17: Pau > Col du Tourmalet (174 km)

While the preceding mountain stages will have helped sort out the men from the boys, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will have gained a decisive advantage. This final Pyrenean stage, however, is the one which could decide the battle for the yellow jersey.

After the short, sharp shock of the Côte de Renoir (only 2,2km, but 6% gradient) to shake away the cobwebs of the rest day, the riders will face three peaks of increasing difficulty, with the first category climbs of the Col de Marie-Blanque and Col du Soulor both averaging close to 8% slope, enough to shake loose anyone who is in even the slightest difficulty deep into the third week – which will be a lot of people. But we shouldn’t expect attacks from any of the big guns on any of these three climbs.

The action will be saved for the final climb of the day – and indeed the entire Tour – the second ascent to the summit of the Tourmalet. From this direction, it is 18.6 km at an average gradient of 7.5%. If all goes to form, this will be Andy Schleck’s last chance to attack Contador and establish the cushion – at least a couple of minutes – he will need to compensate for the time he will inevitably lose in stage 19’s individual time trial. Equally, if any of the other favourites remain within sniffing distance of the yellow jersey, they will have to throw caution to the wind. This final ascent should be the most spectacular hour of the entire Tour, with the elite riders throwing the kitchen sink at each other.

Stage 19: Bordeaux > Pauillac (52 km) – individual time trial

Depending on the outcome on the Tourmalet, the Tour’s lone individual time trial stage may prove to be a redundant spectacle. But if the yellow jersey’s advantage is two minutes or less, then it is all up for grabs.

With the ITT coming so late in the race, and with all the punishment the riders will have endured to this point, the form book may go out of the window. The stage win may prove to be beyond the GC contenders – it will probably go to a time trial specialist who has saved his legs in the Pyrenees – but that is neither here nor there. Contador will certainly fancy his chances of seizing or preserving the yellow jersey here, but if Levi Leipheimer, Cadel Evans or Bradley Wiggins, say, are within sight of the lead, do not rule them out either. Andy Schleck will be hoping he already has a hefty buffer by this point; if not, his hopes of taking overall victory will be vanishingly thin.

By the time the last rider crosses the finish line in Pauillac, we will finally know who the winner of the 2010 Tour de France is.

And so, finally, here is the potted summary of tomorrow’s prologue stage, which kicks the whole three weeks off.

Prologue preview:

Start & finish: Rotterdam > Rotterdam

Distance & type: 8.9km, prologue time trial

Prediction: Flat and long by prologue standards, expect the time trial specialists to dominate the standings, so it will be surprising if Fabian Cancellara – a multiple Tour prologue/time trial winner – is not in the top three. The major GC contenders will also be flat out to avoid early time losses, so look also for defending champion Alberto Contador and Sky‘s Bradley Wiggins as potential claimants of the first yellow jersey of the race. If you’re looking for a decent outside bet, it’s also worth considering HTC-Columbia’s Tony Martin, who beat Armstrong, Cancellara et al in the Tour de Suisse time trial last month.

Keep reading here for regular race analysis as the Tour progresses. For the rest of my Tour preview, click on the following links:

Part 1: Who to support?

Part 2: The Tour in numbers

Part 3: The contenders

For full coverage of the Tour de France, I would recommend either the official website or alternatively steephill.tv as your one-stop shop for race reports, photos and videos. Please also visit my friend Todd Kinsey’s blog for in-depth analysis from a competitive cyclist and endurance athlete.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to Tour de France preview, part 4: Key stages and prologue preview

  1. Todd Kinsey says:

    Great breakdown of the stages. I completely agree that the prologue should be in there because it’s long enough for the big boys to gain some seperation.

    Talk to you tomorrow, cheers!

    Todd

  2. Tim says:

    I think we’ll get a good read on the relative status of the GC contenders from the prologue. The course doesn’t look too technical – there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of tight turns, so it should all be about power, stamina and a willingness to suck up the pain. Anyone who loses 20 seconds or more on any of the other GC guys in the prologue is going to have a tough time!

    It’s Canecllara all the way for me, with Tony Martin coming in second.

  3. Wish I had the time to peruse your post carefully!

  4. Marc says:

    Great blog as always. Really can’t look past Cancellara for the prologue. A lot of people talking up Wiggins’ and Millar’s chances (at least here in the UK), but I don’t see it. Wiggins himself says he’s just looking to beat the other GC contenders. I’m also going to be interested in seeing stage 16 – very hard day of climbing but with too long a run-in downhill to the stage finish. Reminds me of last year’s stage over the Tourmalet (I think?) where nothing happened… although the climbing is harder this time and it won’t be the first week. We shall see.

    Cheers for the link to your blog, I’ll try and direct people over here when I can, mine’s only in its infancy at the moment but if you don’t mind I’ll put a link to it here: http://marchw108.wordpress.com/

    Still trying to come up with a permanent name for it actually, struggling a little for inspiration there!

    Marc

  5. Lance came a “aurprising fourth” in the prologue!!! The man is some kind of exceptional animal. He performs while THEY are trying to nail him for doping!!

    • Tim says:

      Or possibly BECAUSE they are trying to nail him?

      Lance has always been at his best when backed into a corner. It was a brilliant performance by him today, confounding many people (me included) who expected him to be just a fraction off Contador’s pace. It sets things up nicely for an intriguing three weeks, that’s for sure.

      As for Landis’s accusations, as Lance’s statement said wryly, it’s funny how these allegations always emerge on the eve of the Tour for maximum publicity. Until proven otherwise, I have to believe in the innocence of one of sport’s great icons. And, whatever the truth is, Floyd hardly makes the most credible-looking witness himself, given his past, his debt and his broken marriage.

      Prologue review to follow shortly!

  6. Re Lance and doping allegations, here’s what NY Times reports today:

    “In an article published Saturday in The Wall Street Journal, Landis, who was stripped of his 2006 Tour title for doping, gave additional details about his use of banned doping products and again accused Armstrong and his teammates of receiving blood transfusions during the 2004 Tour.

    Armstrong said he was too busy to pay attention to the Landis’s latest accusations. In a statement sent through his manager, Armstrong described Landis’s claims as “a carton of sour milk: once you take the first sip, you don’t have to drink the rest to know it has all gone bad.””

  7. Great info, Tim. It’s going to be a great race this year! I can’t wait to watch the drama play out between Armstrong and Contador!

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