With a week of racing already in the rearview mirror, nothing much has been decided at the 100th Tour de France. That wont be the case on Sunday night after the peloton has completed two days of climbing in the Pyrnes. And theyre two extremely difficult days, Saturdays having a summit finish at Ax 3Domaines and Sundays featuring no less than five climbs with a valley finish at Bagnres-de-Bigorre.
First, lets look at where the main contenders stand after three jarring stages over and around the island of Corsica, a less-decisive team time trial than usual in Nice, and three stressful stages across the South of France that ended in field sprints. So far, the only time differences between the 10 favorites I named last week have come in the team time trial on Tuesday.
These are their relative positions before starting out from Castres on Saturday morning: Team Skys roommates Chris Froome and Richie Porte are 1 and 2. Saxo-Tinkoffs Alberto Contador is next, at six seconds. Garmin-Sharps Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin are 4 and 5, at 14 seconds. Movistars Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana are 6 and 7, at 17 seconds. BMC Racings Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen are 8 and 9, at 23 seconds, and Katusha Teams Joaquim Rodriguez brings up the rear, at 25 seconds.
Of course, there are others who could still challenge this top 10, including Garmins Andrew Talansky (at 14 seconds, though this is his first Tour and his main job is to learn about the race while serving Hesjedal and Martin); RadioShack-Leopard-Treks Andy Schleck (at 26 seconds, the 2010 winner is continuing to find better form); Team Belkins Bauke Mollema (at 34 seconds, the 2007 Tour de lAvenir winner who is this Dutch teams sole leader); FDJs Thibaut Pinot (at 39 seconds, the second-year pro is hoping for another top-10 finish); and Team Astanas Jakob Fuglsang (at 53 seconds, whose co-team leaders Jani Brajkovic and Fredrik Kessiakoff crashed out on Thursday).
After a week of mostly churning the big chainring, theres always a shock for riders when shift to the little ring for the Tours first major climb. And this year, on Saturday, that first climb is one of the most challenging in France: the Port de Pailhres. In fact, at 2,001 meters (6,565 feet), it is the highest mountain pass in this years Tour, as indicated by the first rider over the top winning the prestigious Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize, named after the Tours co-founder and first race director.
The approach to the Pailhres starts in the ocher-tile-roofed town of Quillan, site of the days intermediate sprint, where the sprinters teams will end their days duties and hand over to the teams of the GC leaders in preparation for the long climb ahead. After Quillan, the narrowing road rises 500 meters (1,640 feet) in 30 kilometers at a gradually increasing grade through the limestone gorges of the Aude River.
Only then, at the village of Usson-les-Bains, will the peloton turn right out of the valley and begin the 15.3-kilometer-long hors-catgorie Pailhres climb. It has an average of 8 percent, but long stretches near the start and in the middle section top 9 percent, and where the road narrows and climbs out of a side valley, a series of 10 tight hairpin turns conclude with a 2-kilometer stretch at over 10 percent. The Tours highest climb is indeed one of the toughest in France, but it remains to be seen if the main contenders teams decide its also a climb that will enable them to apply the pressure on their opponents.
This Pailhres has featured only four times in the Tour2003, 2005, 2007 and 2010and each time it has been somewhat of a disappointment. And thats because, in those previous four appearances, the pattern of the race had already been set (and the race partially decided) in the Alps. We can expect a different outcome this Saturday because this is the first chance of the true mountain climbers to show their stuff this week, and when AG2R-La Mondiales Blel Kadri will be challenged for the red-and-white polka-dot jersey.
Like three of the four previous times the Tour has come this way, Saturdays finishing climb to Ax 3 Domains comes right after the Pailhres fast, non-technical descent of 17 kilometers. Then, starting in the streets of medieval Ax-les-Thermes, comes the last uphill. Though it may look comparatively benign on the stage profile, Ax 3 Domaines is as steep as LAlpe dHuez (at 8.2-percent average) with several pitches steeper than 10 percent, and its 7.8 kilometers of climbing (followed by a flat final kilometer to the line) make a severe test at the end of a probable five-hour day.
The Tour first finished here in 2003, when Spanish climber Carlos Sastre, not a GC threat, won the stage after breaking clear of the main group on the Pailhres. That Tour, now discredited because the principal players have admitted to blood doping, was a two-horse race between race leader Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich. The German, riding for the Bianchi team, didnt budge until Alexander Vinokourov, then leader of the Deutsche Telekom team, attacked about 3 kilometers from the finish. Ullrich chased, dropped Armstrong, and finished seven seconds ahead of the Americanand with a 12-second time bonus the German came within 15 seconds of taking the yellow jersey.
Two years later, there was another solo stage winner in the Austrian, Georg Totschnig, who left behind a breakaway on the Pailhres to win the stage by almost a minute over Armstrong, who consolidated his lead by dropping, one by one, Ivan Basso, Ullrich and Levi Leipheimer. There was a third solo stage winner in 2010, when Frenchman Christophe Riblon left his breakaway companions on the Pailhres to keep a one-minute advantage to the finish.
That Tour was another two-man race, this time between Schleck and Contador. The climb to Ax 3 Domaines saw the same scenario as seven year earlier, with Vinokourov, a teammate of Contador at Team Astana, triggering the attacks in a 10-man yellow-jersey group. His two accelerations with 4 kilometers of climbing left forced Hesjedal and Leipheimer to drop back, and gave Contador a chance to make his own attack. But each time Contador moved, Schleck was straight on his wheel. The two protagonists simply ignored all the other riders and just marked each other, virtually stopping at one point, before they ended the climb together in a group with Rodriguez. Hesjedal had a second wind and chased back to within 10 seconds of the othersa memory that could serve the Canadian very well this weekend.
Ax 3 Domaines is the only summit finish until the July 14 arrival on Mont Ventoux, followed by two more in the Alps, so all of the contenders will be trying to stay with (or beat!) top favorites Froome and Contador. Those who dont quite match the best climbers will have another, very different chance to take back some time on Sunday.
Stage 8 is shorter in distance, 168.5 kilometers compared with 195 kilometers, but will probably take as long to race being filled with five major climbs. And even though the last 30 kilometers are downhill, the trilogy of category 1 climb that precede that long downhillthe Peyresourde, Val Louron-Azet and Hourquette dAncizanare respectively 13 kilometers, 7.5 kilometers and 10 kilometers in length and the last two feature long sections with grades between 9 and 10 percent.
A successful breakaway is more likely on this demanding daybefore the riders take a flight north to the first rest day in Brittanybut its going to be instructive (and hopefully exciting and dramatic) to see how much time separates Froome, Contador, Evans, Hesjedal, Valverde, Rodriguez, Porte, Van Garderen, Martin and Quintana as they leave the Pyrnes.
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