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14.07.2015 @ 13:55 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Chris Froome clearly won the battles of the opening week but a lot can still change in a race that has not even visited a single mountain yet. Tomorrow a new race stars when the riders finally get to the Pyrenees where the new climb of La Pierre Saint-Martin will be the scene of the first big battle between the climbers in the 2015 Tour de France.

 

The course

The Tour de France is traditionally decided in the Alps and the Pyrenees but this year unusually big time gaps have been created by the time the riders get to the first major climb of the race. The first summit finish comes a few days later than it has been the case in the last few years as the riders have had to wait until after the first rest day before they have reached the first longer climbs. Furthermore, the first week was much harder and more stressful than the traditional sprint festival that has often dominated the first part of the world’s biggest race.

 

The Alps and the Pyrenees take turns at being the host of the decisive stages in the race and after last year’s final battles were held in the mountain range on the French-Spanish border, the Alps will be the scene of the final part of this year’s race. Hence, the Pyrenees will be visited first. In recent years, the first mountain range has not had too hard stages as the organizers have wanted to keep the race exciting for as long as possible but this year the Pyrenean stages definitely won’t be a walk in the park. With three consecutive summit finishes of which two are pretty hard, the climbers can make their mark already at this point of the race.

 

The first mountain stage of the race brings the riders over just 167km from Tarbes to a brand new summit finish on the climb of La Pierre Saint-Martin. It is a typical Pyrenean stage that is made up of two very different parts. Most of the day takes place on the plains north of the mountains and only includes a few smaller climbs but it all comes to a very dramatic end with a big summit finish on the first category HC climb of the race.

 

The stage consists of a long westerly run on the northeastern outskirts of the Pyrenees where the riders travel along mainly flat roads. They will go up the category 4 climbs Cote de Bougarber (1.4km, 6.2%) and Cote de Viellesegure (1.7km, 5.9%) after 66km and 90km of racing respectively but otherwise there are no big challenges. In the second half of the stage, they will gradually turn towards the south and the major mountains where they will contest the intermediate sprint at the 124km mark before they get into the harder terrain. It’s a pretty straightforward sprint on a straight road that is slightly uphill.

 

The riders will turn east to tackle the category 4 Cote de Montory (1.8km, 6.3%) with 33km to go and it serves as warm-up of what is to come. Again travelling in a southerly direction, the riders will head along flat roads to the bottom of the La Pierre Saint-Martin climb that is located close to the French-Spanish border. With a length of 15.3km and an average gradient of 7.4%, it is a pretty hard summit finish compared to what is usually found in the Tour. However, the toughest part comes on the lower slopes as the gradient doesn’t drop below 7.7% in the first 10km, with five of those averaging more than 9%. Then it gets significantly easier as the next four kilometres average between 3.5% and 6% before it again gets steeper with an average of 7.1% in the final kilometre leading to the easier final 300m. There are two turns inside the final few hundred metres, with the final one leading onto the 80m finishing straight on a 5m wide road.

 

La Pierre Saint-Martin has never hosted a Tour de France stage before but the riders tackled the climb from a different side in 2007 on their way to Col d’Aubisque where Michael Rasmussen won what would be the final Tour de France stage of his career.

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

One of the factors that distinguish the Tour de France from the Giro d’Italia is the weather. While the riders in the Italian grand tour often have to tackle the climbs in freezing cold, everybody remembers the images of riders battling the steep climbs in the Pyrenees in sweltering heat. Very often the peloton has been greeted with very hot conditions in the area close to the French-Spanish border and it has often had a massive impact on the race.

 

This year it seems that it will be one of those hot editions of the Tour. Tomorrow is set to be a partly sunny day and the maximum temperature in Arette close to the bottom of the final climb will be close to 30 degrees. Furthermore, there will barely be any wind as only a light breeze will be blowing from a northerly direction. This means that the riders will mainly have a crosswind in the flat first part before they gradually turn into a tailwind in the run-in to the climb. On the climb, there will mainly be a tailwind apart from a short crosswind section at the midpoint and a cross-headwind section just before the final hairpin turn.

 

The favourites

Only a near-miss in the team time trial leaves a small fly in the ointment for Chris Froome after what has been a fantastic first week. The Brit was prepared to ride defensively in those first nine stages and hoped to limit his losses – mainly to Vincenzo Nibali – before he got to his preferred terrain in the mountains. Instead, things have been completely different. A great performance by his classics crew saw him gain time in the wind and be in a position to attack on the cobbles. He knew he had a chance to gain time on the Mur de Huy but had not expected the significant gaps that occurred on the short, steep ascent in the Ardennes. To go into the mountains with an advantage of more than a minute over each of his three pre-race rivals is the perfect outcome for the Brit.

 

To make things even better, it is hard not to be left with the impression that Froome has been superior on the climbs and this means that there is a big chance that he will increase his advantage over the three days of racing in the climbs close to Spain. Of course there is a big difference between the short climbs in Belgium and Brittany but Froome has every reason to be confident as he heads into the first big climbing test of the race.

 

The first mountain stage of a grand tour is always a very special one. This is the first big test for the GC riders who can no longer hide their climbing form and they are all very curious to find out who the internal hierarchy is. Very often the first summit finish has been relatively easy but that’s definitely not the case in 2015. La Pierre Saint-Martin has a very tough opening part and has the potential to do some damage, especially as it comes one day after a rest day. The first mountain stage is often raced a bit conservatively but with the big time gaps a lot of riders have to grab this opportunity to take back some time.

 

History shows that the favourites usually want to fight for the stage win in the first mountain stage of a grand tour. The first part of this year’s stage is very easy and it won’t be too difficult to control the break and bring it back in time for a battle on the final climb. Furthermore, stage 11 seems to be destined to be won by a breakaway and so many of the good climbers want to save themselves for a big attack in Wednesday’s stage. That stage also offers a lot more KOM points which is another incentive to wait for Wednesday to go on the attack.

 

On the other hand, tomorrow is Bastille Day and this will naturally inspire a lot of Frenchmen to show themselves. Hence, we should see a bit of aggression in the early part but we expect the break to be formed relatively early. There are no major tactical gains by having a rider in the break so it will mainly be composed of riders from smaller teams and French squads. With this kind of easy start, there is no guarantee that the good climbers will be able to make it and we might actually get a break that doesn’t have much of a chance to finish it off in this kind of tough finale.

 

It will be interesting to see which teams want to control the stage. Sky have the leader’s jersey but on paper they have no reason to bring the break back. However, Chris Froome clearly feels that he is the strongest rider at the moment and he wants to exploit that situation as much as possible before the hierarchy potentially changes. He still hasn’t won a stage and he was clearly frustrated to miss out in the team time trial and on the Mur de Huy. He usually wants to leave his mark on the race right from the beginning so we wouldn’t be surprised if Sky brings it back together for the final climb.

 

If they don’t, Katusha and Movistar are likely to come to the fore. Joaquim Rodriguez lost time in the team time trial and needs the bonus seconds to get closer to the podium. The same goes for Nairo Quintana who has lost more time than he had hoped for in the first week of the race. Hence, there should be plenty of interest in keeping the break in check and we can expect a rather uneventful start to the stage during which the usual game between the peloton and the break will unfold.

 

The first highlight will be the intermediate sprint. André Greipel is just trailing Peter Sagan by three points and he hopes to get the jersey back as soon as possible. As the break is likely to take maximum points, there won’t be much to gain for him. The German will be pleased that Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb and Bryan Coquard will also do the sprint and they can all go full gas as this is their only real objective in this stage. This means that he has a bigger chance to gain the necessary points to take over the green jersey but it won’t be easy.

 

As we get closer to the finish, the fight for position will gradually intensify and it will be one big sprint to the bottom of the ascent. In 2010, Lance Armstrong famously crashed in the run-in to the first big climb of the race and there’s always a risk that things will go wrong in what will be a very hectic first phase.

 

The first long climb of the race is always a shock to the system. This year it will be even worse as it comes one day after a rest day and after a long day in flat terrain. The special nature of this mountain stage means that it might not be the true reflection of the climbing hierarchy and we could see changes later in the week when the riders have become more accustomed to the new kind of effort.

 

As soon as we hit the climb, Sky are likely to use their usual strategy of riding tempo right from the start. Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard will make sure that the team is in a good position at the bottom and then the formidable line-up of climbers will make things as hard as possible. As the second half is relatively easy, Froome has to make the difference already on the lower slopes and this means that they have to go hard right from the bottom.

 

Peter Kennaugh doesn’t seem to be at his best and will probably be the first rider in the chain before Nicolas Roche takes over. Then it will be left to Leopold König, Geraint Thomas, Wout Poels and Richie Porte to make things hard and they all have the potential to whittle the peloton down to a very small group. Thomas is clearly flying at the moment and if he has the legs he had in the Dauphiné, Poels will do a lot of damage. The big question is how strong Porte is. Until now he has flown under the radar and there is no doubt that he is nowhere near his best level. On the first few climbs, he has been working relatively early and left it to Thomas to be the final rider for Froome. On a longer climb, things might be different but we are unlikely to see a repeat of the 1-2 for Froome and Porte that they delivered in the first mountain stage in 2013.

 

With a relatively easy final part, there is always a chance that we will see a small group arrive at the finish. However, Froome has proved that he is not afraid of attacking from afar. That’s what he did in 2013 and what he has done in most of the races he has won since he emerged as a leading stage race contender. We expect him to make a move in the steep section after 6km of climbing and it is very hard to imagine that anyone will be able to keep up with the formidable Brit.

 

History clearly shows that Froome is the best climber when he is at 100% of his capabilities. At the moment, he seems to be pretty close to the level he had in the 2013 Tour. The fact that he almost managed to claw his way back to Joaquim Rodriguez on the Mur de Huy which didn’t suit him very well, speaks volumes about his strength. In fact, he would probably have won the stage if he had not allowed Tony Gallopin to create a gap. Now he finds himself in the terrain that really suits him and he is clearly in a completely different position than he was in the 2014 Vuelta where he had to ride conservatively and follow his own pace. Now he is again ready to attack.

 

The main challenge for Froome is the question of recovery. He has often faded a bit in the third week of a grand tour and he is probably fully aware of this fact. Hence, he wants to gain as much time as possible before we get to the Alps. Tomorrow is a chance to firmly underline his position as the strongest rider in the race and we won’t be surprised if he delivers a dominant ride like the one he did in the Pyrenees in 2013.

 

Nairo Quintana avoided disaster in the first week but still regrets his time loss in the Dutch wind on stage 2. However, things could have been much worse for the tiny Colombian who has reached his preferred terrain in a relatively good position.

 

Until now, Quintana has not had much chance to show how strong he is. The short climbs in the first week were better suited to Froome than his less explosive climbing skills. His real terrain is in the mountains and he will be even more comfortable later in the race when we have bigger days with more climbs. Tomorrow’s long flat run-in to the final climb is not tailor-made for the Colombian.

 

With Contador and Nibali both showing signs of weakness, Quintana stands out as the biggest threat for Froome. However, it is hard to imagine that the Colombian will be able to distance his British rival. In fact, he has never shown that he has the skills to compete with a 100% Froome. Until he started to fade in the final week, Froome was clearly the strongest in 2013 and we were not overly impressed by Quintana’s climbing performances in 2013. He won the Giro but never managed to drop everybody else on a climb – apart from in the Gavia stage whose circumstances were very strange. In the Vuelta, Froome and Contador who had both had complicated build-ups, even dropped him in the first mountain stage. Furthermore, his performances in 2015 have been a long string of disappointments.

 

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Quintana is one of the best climbers in the world and he is still the rider most likely to challenge Froome. He will probably have to wait until later in the race to have a real fighting chance but it will be interesting to see him battle it out with the Brit tomorrow.

 

Already in the Dauphiné, it was clear that Joaquim Rodriguez was on track for a great Tour de France. The Spaniard rode stronger than usual in that race and his ride in Huy confirms that he is close to his best level. A longer climb is less suited to his skills than the short, steep wall in Belgium but he should find the steep gradients to his liking. Furthermore, he is one of the select few riders who have the acceleration to follow Froome’s lethal accelerations. If he can stay with the Brit in the steep part, he has a very big chance to win the stage. It won’t be easy for Froome to drop him in the easy second part and in a sprint, Rodriguez is clearly the fastest.

 

The only small doubt about Rodriguez is related to his performance on the Mur-de-Bretagne. He has made it clear that he wanted to win the stage and even briefly had Marco Haller chasing in the bunch. However, he never made his expected attack and seemed to be on the limit. However, he may quickly have realized that the circumstances would make it impossible to win the stage which is a possible explanation for his surprisingly defensive ride.

 

Tejay van Garderen confirmed his huge progress with a great ride in the Dauphiné and he now finds himself in a position where he can realistically challenge for the podium. He has had a perfect first week and looked very strong in the first two climbing tests of the race. He is much stronger on longer climbs and in the Dauphiné he proved that he is not far off Froome’s mark.

 

However, the Brit is clearly a lot stronger than he was in June and it remains to be seen whether the American can step up his level similarly. Furthermore, his GC position will make him a marked man and he doesn’t have the sprint to beat Froome in a final battle. However, he has matured a lot. In the past, he often went into the red zone way too early before blowing up spectacularly. Now his strength is his ability to gauge his effort. It won’t be easy for him to win the stage but he should be up there with the best.

 

It is too early to write off Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian looked strong in the first part of the race with a good time trial, a solid performance on the Mur and a strong ride on the cobbles. Hence, the entire cycling world was surprised to see the Italian lose ground on the Mur-de-Bretagne. He claimed that it was just a case of a bad day and that his good legs had returned for the team time trial. Nonetheless, it is evident that the performance has made him question his own abilities to follow the best.

 

It is important to remember that Nibali was often very inconsistent in grand tours earlier in his career and always managed to bounce back with strong rides later in the race. He seemed to have overcome that weakness but it won’t be a big surprise to see him ride with the best in tomorrow’s stage and as he has lost a bit of ground, he won’t be too heavily marked.

 

Usually, Alberto Contador would stand out as one of the big favourites for this stage but the Spaniard has clearly shown signs of weakness. He lost ground on the Mur de Huy and was clearly suffering on the Mur-de-Bretagne where he found himself far back in the group. He has admitted that he lacks the spark that he usually has and now hopes to win the race by virtue of consistency and his excellent ability to recover. That means that he will probably have to wait until the Alps before he can potentially hope to gain time. Tomorrow it will probably be a case of limiting the losses but of course you can never rule Contador out.

 

Daniel Martin is no pure climber and he is more suited to the short, steep climbs of the first week than the long ascents in the Pyrenees. However, the Irishman seems to be extremely strong at the moment. Everybody seemed to be on their limit at the top of the Mur-de-Bretagne where nobody was really able to launch their planned attacks apart from Alexis Vuillermoz and Martin who was boxed in and so attacked too late. He is no GC danger and so will have plenty of freedom. Furthermore, he is very fast in a sprint and will benefit from the easy second part.

 

Alejandro Valverde was clearly not at his best in the first part of the race but he seems to be getting stronger and stronger. He rode well on the cobbles and was much better on the Mur-de-Bretagne than on the Mur de Huy. He led Movistar all the way up the final climb in the team time trial and was so strong that he ripped the team apart earlier in the stage. He is usually not able to match the best on this kind of longer climb but if tactics come into play he will have a chance. That might allow a small group to gather in the easy second part and in a sprint no one will be able to beat Valverde.

 

Bauke Mollema had a difficult build-up to the race as he was set back by back problems in the Dauphiné. However, he has clearly recovered well and seems to be very strong at the moment. He did an excellent team time trial and did a strong ride on both walls where he had to fight back from a poor position. He is not one of the favourites and so will have a bit of freedom. Furthermore, his fast sprint makes him a danger on this climb.

 

We are curious to see how Alexis Vuillermoz will do in this stage. Romain Bardet and Jean-Christophe Peraud are not at their 2014 level and so the Frenchman will probably be allowed to take his own chances. He is better suited to short, steep climbs than long ascents but he still managed to finish 11th in last year’s Giro while working for Domenico Pozzovivo. Everybody was impressed by his attack in Brittany as he accelerated at a time when everybody was on their limit. He has the punch to make the difference in the final part and this will make him a potential danger.

 

Warren Barguil was not expecting to ride for GC in this race but as he has survived the first week better than expected, he is now targeting the top 10. He has been one of the strongest on the climbs in the first part of the race and he usually gets better and better throughout a grand tour. He is never afraid of attacking and he is no immediate danger to the favourites.

 

Pierre Rolland is out of the GC battle but he seems to be riding very well. It is no surprise that he lost time on both walls which are way too short for him and he always destined to be in difficulty in the wind and on the cobbles. Now he is aiming at a stage win. He might prefer to save energy for a long-distance break in stage 11 but he will probably also test himself on the final climb. He won’t be afraid to go on the attack and he seems to have the excellent legs he had in last year’s Giro.

 

We are curious to see what Louis Meintjes can do in this stage. In the Dauphiné, the South African proved that he can match the best on the climbs. Of course the Tour de France is a different story and he will probably save energy for a long-distance attack later in the week. However, he could still test his legs on the final climb and after his solid ride in Huy he is clearly in good condition.

 

A breakaway is unlikely to make it but if Sky refuse to close it down and Movistar and Katusha prefer to save energy for later, it won’t be impossible. In that case, we will point to Bob Jungels as a joker. The Luxembourger is riding very well at the moment. Despite suffering from a headache he was in the first group on the Mur-de-Bretagne and he was the locomotive in the team time trial for Trek. He has the power on the flats to make it into the break and is climbing well enough to finish it off.

 

Another breakaway candidate is Rafael Valls. Lampre-Merida have not had much success in this race and will take their chances in the mountains. There great team time trial proves that their riders are in great condition and Valls stands out as one of the best. The Spaniard has had a great 2015 season and would love to crown it with a stage win in this race.

 

Christophe Riblon has finally found the good condition after a difficult start to the year. He was very strong in the team time trial for Ag2r who did much better than expected. He has proved that he knows how to finish it off in stages like this one. In fact he prefers a route with a flat section and a final climb where he can combine his rouleur and climbing skills. This makes him one to watch in tomorrow’s stage.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Chris Froome

Other winner candidates: Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez

Outsiders: Vincenzo Nibali, Tejay van Garderen, Alberto Contador, Daniel Martin, Alejandro Valverde

Jokers: Bauke Mollema, Alexis Vuillermoz, Warren Barguil, Pierre Rolland, Louis Meintjes (breakaway), Bob Jungels (breakaway), Rafael Valls (breakaway), Christophe Riblon (breakaway)

 

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