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19.07.2015 @ 13:55 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The sprinters have been waiting since stage 7 to get a chance to stretch their legs and they have marked stage 15 out as their only opportunity before Paris. However, it won’t be easy to keep the race together and if it comes down to a sprint, most of them are likely to have been distanced on a deceptively hard route in Massif Central.

 

The course

It has been a long wait for the sprinters who haven’t had a chance to sprint for the win since stage 7 which is just be a distant memory at this late point in the race. Usually, there is at least one sprint stage in between the Pyrenees and the Alps and this year it won’t be any different. However, this year’s easiest stage of the second week is by no means a flat affair and it will require a solid pair of climbing legs to still be contention when the riders reach Valence in the heart of the Rhone corridor.

 

The stage brings the riders over 183km from the previous stage’s finish in Mende to Valence and can be split into two parts. The first half takes place in the hilly Massif Central and even though there are only three small categorized climbs, there are very little flat roads. In fact the first 18.5km are all uphill, with the category 3 Cote de Badaroux (4.6km, 5.1%) coming at the 9.5km mark from where the road continues to rise for another 9km. Then the roads are generally slightly descending until the riders get to the two category 4 climbs Col du Bez (2.6km, 4.4%) and Col de la Croix de Bauzon (1.3km, 6.2%) which come in quick succession with around 110km to go.

 

The westerly journey continues with a long descent that brings the riders down to the flatlands in the Rhone Valley. In fact, the roads are slightly descending until they reach the feed zone at the 111.5km mark. Before they get there, they will contest the intermediate sprint after 108km of racing and it is a pretty tough affair. The final kilometre is uphill with a gradient of around 4% and there’s a sharp turn around 500m from the line.

 

After the feed zone, the riders will turn to the northeast to head towards Valence but before they get to the Rhone Valley, they have to overcome a significant obstacle. The category 2 Col de l’Escrinet (7.9km, 5.8%) is a tough climb whose summit comes just 56.5km from the finish. However, the final part of the stage is very easy as it is made up of a descent and completely flat roads along the Rhone river leading to the finish in Valence. Here they face a series of roundabouts before they turn left with 3km to go. From there they follow a long straight road leading to a right-hand turn in a roundabout just 280m from the finish which is on a 7m wide road. There’s a small climb with around 4km to go but the final part is completely flat.

 

Valence has not hosted a stage finish for more than a decade but it hosted the finale of the flat Criterium du Dauphiné time trial in 2009 when then world champion Bert Grabsch turned his massive gear to beat an in-form Cadel Evans by just 7 seconds.

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

The forecasted rain never came in today’s stage which ended as another very hot one. Tomorrow it is likely to stay dry but there is a small risk that we will have more rain in the finale. It will be raining in the morning but by the time the stage gets underway, the riders are likely to have beautiful sunshine. The risk of showers increases towards the end of the stage but most likely it won’t start to rain before the stage has finished. The maximum temperature will be 32 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a southerly direction which will gradually pick up and change direction to come from the west. This means that the riders will first have a cross-wind but as both they and the wind change direction, it will be more of a cross-tailwind in the final third of the stage. In the finale, there will be a tailwind until the riders turn into a crosswind with 3km to go.

 

The favourites

The Cote de la Croix Neuve produced the expected fireworks between the overall contenders and created bigger time gaps than most had predicted. For the first time in this year’s race Chris Froome seemed to be on the defensive as he had to go into his usual time trial mode instead of riding on the attack. Nairo Quintana failed to gain any time but today’s stage will definitely have boosted his confidence as get closer to the stages in the Alps.

 

Before we get there, the GC riders have to survive two transitional stages where they are unlikely to make any differences in the top of the overall standings. However, that doesn’t mean that they will easy days. Both stages are some of the biggest goals for attackers in this race and this means that it will be FAST racing. Today the first two hours of the race were again done at a brutal speed which definitely was a big part of the finale being so selective.

 

While the attackers have red-circled tomorrow’s stage, the sprinters have done so too. The 2015 Tour de France doesn’t offer many chances to test themselves and in fact they have not had a single opportunity since stage 7. To make things even worse, this is the only possible sprint finish before we get to Paris and this makes it a huge goal for them.

 

This means that we will be in for a very interesting opening part of the stage where the composition of the early break will determine the outcome. The first 18.5km are all uphill and this means that it is the perfect terrain to attack. Today many sprinters were dropped in the early part of the race where the climbs were a lot easier so there is a very big chance that they will be sent out the back door while the strong riders try to make a difference in the tough terrain.

 

The teams with an interest in a sprint finish are mainly Tinkoff-Saxo, Katusha, Etixx-QuickStep, Giant-Alpecin and Lotto Soudal but they all know that a break has a very big chance. They don’t want to miss out on a successful move so they will probably try to go on the attack before evaluating their options and the condition of their sprinters. In this kind of stage, only the strongest riders will be able to join the move which will probably take some time to get formed.

 

When the group has formed, it will be time to take stock of the situation. The likes of André Greipel and Mark Cavendish are likely to have dropped and they need to return to the group before they can initiate a chase. Furthermore, they have to take the late category 2 climb into account which it won’t be easy to survive and there is no guarantee that they will do anything to bring it back.

 

Giant-Alpecin and Katusha have done nothing to hide that this stage is a big goal for them and if they have missed the move, they will probably start to chase. However, they are both down to seven riders and don’t gave the strongest teams for this kind of terrain. It will be very hard for them to bring back what is likely to be a very strong break, especially as they also have to go up a category 2 climb. Orica-GreenEDGE might lend them a hand as Michael Matthews has returned to form.

 

However, the team that can make the difference is Tinkoff-Saxo. This is likely to be Peter Sagan’s best chance to take that elusive stage win. On the other hand, Alberto Contador is looking stronger and is still in podium contention. They spent a lot of energy yesterday and will also have to keep something in reserve for the Alps. Yesterday they nearly failed to catch the break so if the group is too strong, they will probably throw in the towel and the breakaway will ride away with a big advantage while Sky set a controlling pace.

 

If a sprint finish is on the cards, Tinkoff-Saxo, Orica-GreenEDGE and Giant-Alpecin will probably go hard on the Col de l’Escrinet to get rid of the faster guys. If Majka, Kreuziger and Rogers drop the hammer, it won’t be easy for the sprinters to survive. They have plenty of time to get back on but it will definitely cost them a lot of energy. After a tough start to the stage, they certainly won’t be fresh for a reduced bunch sprint.

 

Despite the dreams of the sprinters, we expect this stage to be won by a breakaway. The tough start means that the break will be a very strong one and only Tinkoff-Saxo seem to be strong enough to possibly bring it back. That won’t be easy and we expect them to prefer to save energy for later unless a small group gets clear.

 

If a breakaway makes it to the finish, it is very hard to find out who’s going to come out on top. The category 2 climb comes too early to make a solo bid for the win and can only be used to make a first selection. In the end, it will come down to a battle on the flat roads where luck and timing will play a big role but of course a fast sprint is no disadvantage in this kind of finish.

 

One rider who has all the capabilities to come out on top in this kind of finale is Simon Geschke. The German had a big setback in the early part of the year when he broke his collarbone but he used the Giro to ride himself back into condition. He has been very strong in this race where he has been a key support for both John Degenkolb and Warren Barguil.

 

Tomorrow Giant-Alpecin hope for a sprint finish but in an uncontrollable first part, they will try to go on the attack. Here Geschke is their best card and he seems to be strong enough to make it. He has been riding very strongly in the mountains and is even better in this kind of terrain. Furthermore, he is fast in a sprint and is tailor-made for this kind of finale.

 

Zdenek Stybar was very strong at the start of the race but is clearly starting to feel the fatigue. He has been disappointed by his performance in the mountain stages and he was not at his usual level in the uphill sprint on stage 13. However, he is not riding poorly and he has all the skills to do well in this stage. He is strong on the flats and on shorter climbs and has a fast sprint.

 

 

If it comes down to a sprint finish, we will put our money on Peter Sagan. As said, we don’t expect André Greipel and Mark Cavendish to make the selection but the climbs will be no problem for the Slovakian who is an excellent climber. He is obviously still very fresh as he proved with his second place in Rodez and his strong ride in the breakaway today.

 

Sagan has now finished second in 15 Tour de France stage and he was extremely frustrated to miss out in Rodez. Today he seemed to be riding more on anger and tomorrow is probably one of only two chances in the final part of the race. Hence, he will be extremely motivated.

 

Usually, Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb are faster than Sagan but the late roundabout is more suited to his strong kick than the power sprints of his rivals. Sagan has a much better than acceleration and his technical skills usually allow him to benefit from a late obstacle. This kind of short finishing straight is tailor-made for him and so he has a big chance to beat the faster riders. Furthermore, Sagan is strong enough to join a breakaway and the sprint teams won’t be able to prevent him from escaping in the tough first part. If he senses that a sprint is not an option, he will go on the attack.

 

His biggest rival will be John Degenkolb. The climbs will be no problem for the German who is an excellent climber. He has overcome much harder challenges in the past, most notably in last year’s Vuelta, and he is evidently still in excellent condition. The finish in Rodez was a bit too steep for him but it was still an impressive performance by him to finish fourth in a finale that was dominated by Ardennes specialists and GC riders.

 

Degenkolb is very strong in sprints that come at the end of a hard day and so tomorrow’s stage is perfect for him. Usually he is faster than Sagan in flat sprints which has also been evident in this year’s intermediate sprints where he has mostly beaten his Slovakian rivals. Furthermore, he can probably rely on Simon Geschke and Koen De Kort to lead him out and that makes it likely that he will be in the perfect position. He benefits from the selection as he is not very good in the fight for position but it will be less intense in a smaller field. The main challenge for him is the late roundabout but if he can get through in the first position, it won’t be easy for Sagan to come around him.

 

The Tour de France has been a frustrating experience for Alexander Kristoff who has been nowhere near his best level. However, he claimed to have had good legs in stage 13 where he made it into the front group. As expected, the final climb was too hard for him but at least his performance indicates that he is still relatively fresh.

 

Kristoff is a better climber than both Cavendish and Greipel but he is not at the level of Degenkolb and Sagan. It won’t be easy for him to keep up with the peloton if the Tinkoff-Saxo climbers go full gas. However, it won’t be impossible for him to make it and he is usually unbeatable in a sprint after a hard day. In this race, he seems to miss his usual speed though and the late roundabout doesn’t suit him. However, an in-form Marco Haller could also make the selection and if he does so, Kristoff can rely on a great lead-out man.

 

As said, we expect it to be too hard for Cavendish but that doesn’t mean that Etixx-QuickStep won’t have a rider for the sprint. Matteo Trentin has won stages in this race two years in a row. Last year his win came in a similar stage where a late climb had taken away the fastest rider and he won an almost identical stage in that year’s Tour de Suisse too. He is not as fast as his rivals but with Zdenek Stybar and Michal Kwiatkowski to lead him out, he is likely to have one of the best team to support him. He might also try to go on the attack and in that case he will be one of the favourites.

 

Michael Kwiatkowski has not been at his best in this race but his condition is growing. He rode strongly in the stage to Plateau de Beille and has saved energy in the last two stages. Tomorrow’s stage is tailor-made for him as he is one of the best in the hilly terrain in the first part and has the strength on the flats in the finale. He is very fast in a sprint and is usually great at timing his attacks.

 

Jan Bakelants was in the break in today’s stage and will be feeling the efforts in his legs. However, at this point in a grand tour it is often the same riders who can make a difference. Bakelants is clearly one of the freshest and he is very strong in this terrain. He is not very fast in a sprint but he knows how to time a late attack and time trial his way to the finish.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo missed today’s break and will try to make amends tomorrow. Their best card is Paul Martens. The German proved his good condition when he finished fifth in Rodez and tomorrow he will have the freedom to attack. He has often been a top 10 contender in the Ardennes classics and this makes him suited to this stage. Furthermore, he is very fast in a sprint.

 

Greg Van Avermaet won a stage yesterday when he showed impressive strength in Rodez. Today he was again on the attack but he struggled a bit on the steep climb in Mende, probably paying the price for his hard work yesterday. It will be hard for him to join the break two days in a row but he is obviously riding so well that it won’t be impossible. With his fast sprint, he has the skills to finish it off.

 

Edvald Boasson Hagen was eager to mix it up in yesterday’s stage but the final climb was too hard for him. Now he has set his sights on tomorrow’s stage which is another good opportunity for him. There is little chance that he will be distanced on the climbs and so he should be one of the fastest riders in the bunch. On paper, he is not as fast as Sagan and Degenkolb and he usually needs a longer sprint to really shine. Furthermore, he suffered a lot in today’s stage. His best chance to win the stage might be to join a breakaway but it won’t be easy.

 

Bryan Coquard is another sprinter who should be able to survive the climbs. The tiny Frenchman is still riding strongly as he proved when he was part of the breakaway in the Plateau de Beille stage. His big goal was the stage to Rodez but the heat killed him in the uphill sprint. Angelo Tulik is also riding well and this means that he is likely to have a lead-out man in the finale. With a smaller field, he won’t suffer as much from positioning as he usually does and he has the speed to win this kind of sprint.

 

It won’t be impossible for Mark Cavendish to survive the climbs. The Brit usually recovers much better than most sprinters and it is definitely no coincidence that he has won in Paris on four occasions. He looked pretty strong in the Rodez stage where he was never in trouble on the climbs. If he gets dropped on the climb, Etixx-QuickStep have often proved that they know how to stay compact around their leader and pace him back to the peloton. If he is there, he will be hard to beat.

 

Usually, André Greipel is a better climber than Cavendish but history proves that the German usually suffers more at the end of a grand tour than the Brit. He was dropped early in the Rodez stage and to make things worse, he even crashed in today’s stage. With his current condition, it is hard to imagine that he will be in contention at the end of the stage but if he is there, he will be the favourite as he has clearly proved to be the fastest rider in the race.

 

Michael Matthews is getting better and better and yesterday he tested himself for the first time. An 18th place is below his usual standard but it proves that he is getting better. He will definitely be able to survive the climbs but usually he is not fast enough to win a flat sprint. Due to his injuries, it won’t be any easier.

 

Arnaud Demare has been riding surprisingly well in this race. Last year he was on his knees at the end of the Tour but this year he has both been able to go on the attack and test himself in the uphill sprint in Rodez. On paper, the final climb is probably a bit too hard for him but he is a better climber than both Cavendish and Greipel. Furthermore, he likes this kind of finale with a late turn and he is one of the fastest riders in the peloton.

 

Thomas Voeckler is always a candidate in this kind of stage. He is no longer as strong as he once was but he seems to be getting better. He was already on the attack in the Pyrenees and tomorrow he will try again. He is a master in getting into the right breakaway but it is always hard for him to finish it off in a sprint.

 

Thomas De Gendt showed how strong he is when he nearly made it to the finish yesterday. Tomorrow he will be keen to try again and he is one of the best in this kind of stage. There is a solid chance that he will be in the break but as he is not fast in a sprint it will be hard for him to finish it off.

 

Lieuwe Westra has more freedom after Vincenzo Nibali is no longer in contention for the win and he seems to be riding very well. This terrain is perfect for him. He is strong on the flats and is a solid climber. Furthermore, he has a decent sprint so he will have options if he joins the right break.

 

Stef Clement had a bad start to the race but now he is finding his best legs. He is a very good climber and an excellent time triallist and is riding well enough to join the break. He can’t sprint but in last year’s Volta a Catalunya he proved that he knows how to escape in the finale.

 

Reinardt van Rensburg is another strong MTN-Qhubeka candidate. The South African is mainly here to work as a lead-out man but tomorrow he will get his chance to attack. It will be difficult for him to follow the best attacks on the first climb but if he can hang on, he has a chance to make an attack in the easier second part. With his fast sprint, he is a good candidate to finish it off.

 

Mikael Cherel had a difficult start to the race but now his legs are coming around. He rode well in the stage to Plateau de Beille and tomorrow he will again have the freedom to attack. At the moment, he seems to be one of the best on the climbs. He is not very fast in a sprint but is not slow either.

 

For other good breakaway riders, look to Gorka Izagirre, Danilo Wyss, Filippo Pozzato, Sylvain Chavanel, Martin Elmiger, Jerome Coppel, Jan Barta, Bartosz Huzarski, Paul Voss, Armindo Fonseca, Anthony Delaplace and Pierrick Fedrigo.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Simon Geschke (breakaway)

Other winner candidates: Zdenek Stybar (breakaway), Peter Sagan

Outsiders: John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, Matteo Trentin (sprint or breakaway), Michal Kwiatkowski (breakaway), Paul Martens (breakaway), Greg Van Avermaet (breakaway), Jan Bakelants (breakaway)

Jokers: Bryan Coquard (sprint or breakaway), Edvald Boasson Hagen (sprint or breakaway), Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, Michael Matthews (sprint or breakaway), Arnaud Demare, Thomas Voecker (breakaway), Thomas De Gendt (breakaway), Lieuwe Westra (breakaway), Stef Clement (breakaway), Reinardt van Renburg (breakaway), Mikael Cherel (breakaway)

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