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Pyrenees preview: The stages

The Tour de France has already spent four days in the mountains of the Jura and the Alps. Those stages contained just one hors catégorie climb, and many of the leading contenders were reluctant to attack for fear of risking and losing everything before the Tour had reached its halfway point. Nonetheless, the race was blown wide open during those four days, with a high tempo and an accumulation of fatigue scuppering the yellow jersey aspirations of all but the top half-dozen riders, and realistically narrowing the field to just two or three.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tour racing in the Pyrenees, this year’s traverse along the France/Spain border is packed with difficulty. Each day includes at least one HC climb, including two ascents of the giant Col du Tourmalet. There are two summit finishes – at Ax 3 Domaines and on the Tourmalet itself – with the hope being that the final ascent of the Tourmalet will be the decisive showdown of this year’s race.

Here are my thoughts on what to expect from the next four stages, as the 2010 Tour de France approaches its climax.

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 day in the Pyrenees. It is immediately preceded by the hors catégorie Port de Pailhères, a monster climb with an average gradient of 7.9% over its 15.5 km length, and with a pronounced kick-up in kilometres 13 and 14 where the slope increases to more than 10%. Expect the peloton to arrive en masse at its base but shatter immediately, with the first two kilometres being one the steepest sections of the climb. By the summit, only a small elite group will remain, with many of the leaders isolated from their teammates.

Knowing that there are three tough days to come may dissuade any all-out attacks up to Ax 3 Domaines, but even the slightest raising of the tempo is likely to be enough to create some major time gaps. For some, it will spell the end of any lingering hope of a podium or even a top-ten spot. Expect the front end of the race to be splintered into ones, twos and threes by the finish.

It could also be a key day in the King of the Mountains classification if one of the polka dot jersey contenders is brave enough to strike out on his own over the top of the Pailhères. With the GC men likely to be watching each other and trying not to use all their energy, it is perhaps the best remaining opportunity for someone to stay clear to claim a stage win. One for Armstrong himself, perhaps, who has been saving himself over the last few days? Or Carlos Sastre, winner here in 2003?

Excitement factor: 5/5.

Stage 15: Pamiers > Bagnères-de-Luchon (187.5 km)

This stage includes the passes of the Portet d’Aspet and the Ares, which featured on the Tour’s first visit to the Pyrenees in 1910. The former features a tricky descent which claimed the life of Fabio Casartelli, then a teammate of a young Lance Armstrong; the fifteenth anniversary of his fatal crash is the day before this stage.

But the biggest challenge today is the Port de Balès, a 19.3 km climb which starts fairly benignly before ramping up dramatically over its second half. There are two particularly vicious stretches of around 12% at around 10 and 15 km, where the weary will feel as if they are pedalling through treacle and which will provide a springboard for fast-accelerating riders such as Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck to attack.

The rapid 21 km descent to the finish will also provide chances for the top descenders to claim a win, assuming they can remain within sight of the leaders over the summit. Watch out for someone like Samuel Sánchez to throw caution to the winds here, but the odds are that we will not see a massive shake-up in the GC today.

Excitement factor: 4/5.

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 still the best part of 130 km to the finish, including the 29.2 km climb of the Col d’Aubisque. At least it is downhill the rest of the way from there, with a 60 km run 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 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 Rabobank might come together to try to isolate Contador from his Astana teammates and set him up for multiple attacks on the Aubisque.

Excitement factor: 5/5.

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

While the preceding days will have helped sort out the men from the boys, this final Pyrenean stage will, if the race follows the script, 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 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 want to make a move up the order, 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.

At the end of it, we will probably know the winner of the 2010 Tour, and we will definitely know the winner of the polka dot jersey, as there are no further categorised climbs in the race. Back Schleck or Contador to win, but expect attacks from various riders all the way up the mountain as the GC and King of the Mountains shake-outs take place.

Excitement factor: 5/5.

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For an analysis on the final battle for the yellow jersey, see my preview here.

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

One Response to Pyrenees preview: The stages

  1. Pingback: Pyrenees preview: Can anyone catch Schleck and Contador? « The armchair sports fan

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