Two of the longest and highest climbs ever scaled at this time of year are on the schedule for both Paris–Nice and Tirreno–Adriatico this Saturday. At an elevation of 1,678 meters (5,505 feet), the Col de la Couillole in the Alpes-Maritime of southeast France is the highest peak to be included in the 85-year history of Paris–Nice. And while the Terminillo in the Apennine mountains northeast of Rome has an almost identical 1,675-meter (5,495-foot) elevation, it was included in Tirreno two years ago, when Nairo Quintana had to race through a blizzard to win the stage.
Words: John Wilcockson | Images: James Startt & Yuzuru Sunada
The Movistar team’s Quintana went on to win that 2015 Tirreno, and he is again favored this weekend to displace the current top two riders on the Tirreno–Adriatico GC: Rohan Dennis and his BMC Racing teammate Greg Van Avermaet, the defending champion. The Belgian owed his final victory last year to the organizers’ decision to cancel the one stage with a summit finish—on the 1,208-meter (3,963-foot) Monte San Vicino—because of snowy, freezing weather.
As Van Avermaet said this week about his chances on the Terminillo: “The climbers Quintana, Nibali, Aru, Pinot will be back in action. For me, everything stops there as it doesn’t snow every year!”
Indeed, Astana’s Fabio Aru, Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot should all be challenging Quintana on the Terminillo, while others who may shine include Rui Costa (UAE-Team Emirates), Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac), Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott).
The Terminillo, a ski resort for nearby Rome, is 16 kilometers long, has an average grade of 7.3 percent, with the steepest section in the opening 4 kilometers, which ends with a 12-percent pitch. When Quintana won here in 2015, the Colombian climber finished 41 seconds ahead of Mollema and 55 seconds in front of group containing Urán, Pinot and Yates.
Adam Yates’ twin brother Simon is a candidate for victory across the border in France, following his impressive solo stage win at Fayence on Friday. The Englishman’s main opposition for the stage win on the Col de la Couillole, as it was on the short Fayence hilltop finish, should again come from Team Sky’s Sergio Henao, the recently crowned champion of Colombia. Both climbers are clearly on top form, while race leader Julian Alaphilippe will again have to rely in his Quick-Step Floors teammate Dan Martin to defend the 46-second lead he has on Henao.
The wild card in Paris–Nice is two-time champion Alberto Contador of Trek-Segafredo, who made an unsuccessful long-range attack on Friday, and can be expected to again try to make up his 94-second deficit on Alaphilippe on Saturday. To do that, the Spanish star would have to make a move on the second-last climb of the 177-kilometer stage, the Col Saint-Martin, which is 7.5 kilometers long at a 7.2-percent grade.
The last time the Saint-Martin and the immediately following Col de la Couillole were included in an elite-level race was in 1975. That was on a mythic Tour de France stage, when the Saint-Martin-Couillole combo was followed by three more mountains, with a finish at Pra-Loup, where Eddy Merckx famously lost his yellow jersey to Bernard Thévenet on a day of heat-wave temperatures.
Summer-like weather is also expected this Saturday, which will make the final climb more challenging than expected. The Col de la Couillole climbs for almost 16 kilometers at an average grade of 7.1 percent, with a steepest pitch of 11.5 percent at Roublon, 6 kilometers from the summit. Whoever has the yellow jersey of Paris–Nice on Saturday night will have to defend it on the last stage on Sunday, when extremely hilly roads await the survivors on a circular course starting and ending in Nice.