Anyone who’s raced fast in crosswinds like those that blew across the coastal plain of the Mediterranean on Saturday will know how hard it is to hold a wheel—especially when you’ve just had to race up a lung-busting, mile-long climb. Those two challenges in the finale of stage 13 at the Tour de France decimated the peloton. Only 43 men (and six stragglers) were left in the front group that sprinted for the stage win in Cap d’Agde, followed home by groups of 30 riders (at 8:36), 33 riders (at 12:31), and 50 riders (at 14:04).
That looked more like the result of one-day classic. And the finale did resemble that style of racing. More than 48 kilometers were covered in the last 60 minutes, which included the extremely tough and erratically steep Mont St. Clair, a rocky butte that juts 521 feet above the busy fishing port of Sète. Of course, if it had been a one-day classic the whole field wouldn’t still have been together at the foot of the final climb, and the 25 men who emerged at the summit would not have eased their pace and allowed a second group (including eventual stage winner André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol) to catch back.
But that single climb, plus the remaining 20 kilometers of racing in crosswinds, was enough to scatter the field of 163 men over 14 minutes. Defending Tour champ Cadel Evans was the strongest climber on the 12- and 15-percent pitches of Mont St. Clair, constantly getting out of the saddle and upping the pace. At one point, he and Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broeck gapped an elite group headed by yellow jersey Brad Wiggins and his Sky lieutenant Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale, Evans’s BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen, and Chris Horner of RadioShack-Nissan.
On the flats after the sharp descent, Wiggo’s teammates Mick Rogers and Froome initially set a modest tempo, which allowed Greipel’s teammates Lars Bak of Denmark, Adam Hansen of Australia and Jurgen Roelandts of Belgium to comfortably close a 30-second gap for their German sprinter. If this had been a classic, those 30 seconds would have opened up to several minutes and the teams in the front group would all have started fighting for the win.
As it was, once the Lotto rider reached the front they lifted the pace in a tight echelon to close down two breakaways for Greipel, while giving their team leader Van den Broeck an easy ride to the finish. The only other teams with three or men in the eventual lead group were Sky, BMC Racing, RadioShack, AG2R-La Mondiale and Katusha. Wiggins was backed by Froome, Rogers and Edvald Boasson Hagen (who had Wiggins lead him out for his third-place sprint); Evans had Van Garderen and Philippe Gilbert; and team-race leaders RadioShack had Horner, Fränk Schleck, Maxime Monfort and Andreas Klöden helping their top GC rider Haimar Zubeldia.
The only Liquigas-Cannondale rider left with his team leader Nibali was the remarkable Peter Sagan, whose second place on the stage pushed his lead in the green jersey competition to 64 points over runner-up Greipel. But it’s doubtful if Sagan will be able to stay with Nibali when the Tour tackles Sunday’s stage 14 from Limoux to Foix, which contains two of the most testing climbs in the Pyrénées. Van den Broeck is also likely to be alone in the finale. But Froome should be with Wiggins, and Van Garderen with Evans, while RadioShack could have two or three men helping Zubeldia.
Such is the severity of Sunday’s two category 1 climbs that only a select few riders are likely to emerge on the downhill run into Foix. First up is the Col de Lars, 65 kilometers from the finish, which has rarely been used on its steeper eastern approach. The Lars measures 11.4 kilometers on a narrow, twisting back road, averaging 7 percent, with two long stretches at over 10 percent.
As soon as the riders end the Lars descent they immediately begin the next uphill. There’s an initial 6 kilometers on a regular road, with a 5- to 6-percent gradient, before the riders turn left onto the fearsome Mur de Péguère. In 3.6 kilometers, this narrow, bumpy “wall” of a climb rears up at average 12 percent, but with nasty pitches of 18 and 16 percent in its first half.
It’s long and tough enough to completely split a group already selected by the first ascent. And it’s certainly the best chance yet for Evans, Nibali and Van den Broeck to either ride away from Wiggins or isolate him from his teammates. It was a bold decision by race director Christian Prudhomme to include the Péguère ascent for the first time in Tour history. Local cyclosportive riders have known about this glorified goat path for half a century, but the organizers decided against using it in the early 1960s. Now we will finally get to see what effect it can have on racers who’ve got two weeks’ of heavy racing in their legs.
There are 25 kilometers of downhill roads off the Péguère, and then 12 kilometers along and back up the Ariège Valley before the slightly uphill finish. Let’s hope the challengers will give their all to this stage finale. One who will, to be sure, is Evans. After his confidence-building performance up Mont St. Clair on Saturday, his teammate Van Garderen said this about Evans: “He’s an aggressive guy, and he takes chances.”
You couldn’t ask for more than that.