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The hilly stage 15 is a perfect chance for a breakaway

Photo: Sirotti

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16.07.2016 @ 19:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After two tough days, the GC riders almost had a rest day on a long, slow ride in the headwind and are now ready to face their next big test. Stage 15 will send the riders into the Jura Mountains where they will tackle the famous Grand Colombier and where a steep climb in the finale will offer riders a chance to take back some of the time they lost in the time trial. At the same time, lots of attackers have marked Sunday out as one of their best chances to go for glory as the flat finish means that the stage is very likely to be won by a beakaway.

 

The course

There was just one chance to recover for the GC riders as they head into their next climbing test on stage 15. The short, intense stage takes place in the Jura Mountains and is not a big mountain stage where huge time differences can be expected but it’s a day when everything can be lost. The famous Grand Colombier will make its second appearance in the race four years after its debut and will be followed by a tough finishing circuit that includes the shorter, steeper Lacets du Grand Colombier. Unlike the Giro and Vuelta which often have circuits in the finale, the Tour de France usually has point-to-point stages so the stage is a bit of a novelty in the biggest race in the world and will give the first indication of who’s on an up- or downward trends as we head into the decisive part of the race.

 

The short 160km stage will bring the riders from Bourg-en-Bresse to Culoz and barely has a single metre of flat roads. All day the riders will be travelling in a southeasterly direction through some of the hardest terrain France can offer. After a lumpy start, they will face the first challenge, the category 1 Col du Berthiand (6km, 8.1%), whose summit comes at the 23km mark. Then an undulating section leads to the double climb of the category2 Col du Sappel (8.8km, 5.6%) and the category 3 Col de Pisseloup (4.9km, 5.8%) which come in quick succession with only a very short descent in between. Again there is barely any descent after the latter ascent and only a short piece of flat roads will bring the riders to the category 3 Col de la Rochette (5.1km, 5.4%). Along the way, they will contest the slightly uphill intermediate sprint after 71.5km of racing.

 

After the Col de la Rochette, there’s finally a longer descent and then an uncategorized climb and another descent will bring the riders to the bottom of the main climb of the day. The category HC Grand Colombier averages 6.8% over 12.8km and is pretty irregular. There’s an almost flat section in the middle part and then the climb gets steeper in the final 6km which only have one small chance to recover.

 

The top comes with 47km to go and is followed by the longest descent of the day and a short flat section that leads to the finish. Here the riders will take on the 23.5km finishing circuit which can be split into three: a short, flat section, the category 1 climb of Lacets du Grand Colombier and its descent and 8.5 flat kilometres along the Rhone River. The climb averages 7.8% over 8.4km and is pretty steep as it has three kilometres at a gradient of more than 9%. It levels out near the top where the final kilometre only averages 2.9%. The final 5km of the stage are straight and almost completely flat, with just a very light bend 250m from the line. The finishing straight is a 6m wide road.

 

Culoz has not hosted a stage finish at the Tour for more than a decade but it has welcomed the Tour de l’Ain which had a summit finish on the Grand Colombier for several years. Rein Taaramae was the last rider to win here in 2009 after John Gadret had won in 2007. Carl Naibo was the best in 2005 while there was a sprint stage in the city in 2003, with Max Van Heeswijk coming out on top. Marek Rutkiewicz won on the climb in 2002. Grand Colombier was first used by the Tour in 2012 when Thomas Voeckler won the stage that included the climb in the finale.

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

After a few days with the wind as the main factor, it will probably be the heat that will get most attention on Sunday. There will be beautiful sunshine and a maximum temperature at the finish of 29 degrees.

 

Unlike in the past days, there will only be a light wind from northeasterly direction. This means that the riders will first have a crosswind and then a cross-tailwind and a tailwind for most of the stage. There will be a cross-tailwind on the Grand Colombier and the first part of the descent and then a tailwind on the flat section. On the final circuit, there will be a headwind on the climb and the descent and a tailwind in the final flat part.

 

The favourites

Going into the race, Mark Cavendish said that his new approach to the Tour could be either the worst or the best thing he had ever done. After 14 stages, there is no longer any doubt about the assessment. The Brit hasn’t had such a successful Tour since 2011 and the goal of beating Merckx’s record of stage wins suddenly seems to be a realistic target.

 

However, the victories are very different from what we were used to during the HTC trains. Back then, his teams dominated the sprints and that made it much easier for Cavendish to win the bunch kicks. His wins in 2016 are even more impressive. The Brit is not the fastest but he is definitely the smartest. In a headwind sprint like today’s, he knew that Marcel Kittel’s wheel would be the optimal position. First of all, the big German offers lots of shelter. Secondly, there was a big chance that Etixx-QuickStep would go too early in the headwind and then it would be easy for the aerodynamic Brit to come around. His plan worked out perfectly but it was easier said than done. Everybody wanted Kittel’s wheel in the finale and it is testament to Cavendish’s huge class that he was the one to be there.

 

At the same time, Cavendish seems to thrive in a smaller team. He is under less pressure and repeatedly underlines that he enjoys the more relaxed atmosphere. He also seems to be calmer when it comes to his objectives. Earlier he seemed to be very stressed about winning numerous stages in the Tour, getting the yellow jersey and winning Olympic goal. Now he seems to take things more as they come and that seems to suit him well.

 

For Kittel, it was another frustrating experience. In this sprint, it was all about patience and Etixx-QuickStep again started too early. For the umpteenth time, Kittel was way too much in the wind and as soon as he opened the gas, it was clear that he would have no chance.

 

Things weren’t much better for the usually formidable Lotto Soudal train. They looked like their former self when Marcel Sieberg hit the front with 1200m to go but they also faded in the headwind. Adré Greipel is now under huge pressure to keep his winning streak in grand tours alive as Paris is his only chance to take that elusive win.

 

The sprint also showed that the classics riders always come to the fore in the tail end of a grand tour. Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb are now fresher than their rivals and that shows in the sprints. It is no coincidence that Kristoff was very strong in the second half of the 2014 Tour and for the first time this year he now looks like his former self. Unfortunately, he is running out of opportunities but he may have his eyes on the finish in Bern which may not be too hard for the former Tour of Flanders winner.

 

For now, however, the sprinters will step into the background. Tomorrow the riders will return to climbing mode when they hit the Jura mountains for a short, intense stage. It hasn’t really got much attention but that could be a mistake. The stage is extremely tough. There are barely any flat roads and the two category 1 climbs are unusually steep for the Tour de France. Especially, the Lacets du Grand Colombier is a tough challenge and it can do a lot of damage. The flat finish means that it is one of those stages where you can’t win the race but you can definitely lose it.

 

It’s hard to imagine that we won’t have attacks from the GC riders. The time trial did a lot of damage and riders like Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet and Daniel Martin need to gain some ground. They are not an immediate threat for Chris Froome so they hope that they will have some freedom.

 

At the same time, Nairo Quintana simply has to give it a go. He is running out of opportunities and he is so far back that he has to grab every opportunity. The flat finish isn’t ideal for him but Movistar will apply their usual tactic. They will put riders in the early break and hope that Quintana can drop Froome on the climb. However, that’s very unlikely to happen, especially with such a strong Sky team, so we doubt that there will be any changes in the top of the overall standings. Quintana probably won’t insist too much if Sky are as strong as expected and most of the action will probably come from some of the riders further down in the top 10. Nonetheless, we expect Sky to control everything firmly and we will probably only see changes if one or more riders have a bad day.

 

While the GC riders will battle it out on the final climb, there is a very big chance that the stage will be won by a breakaway. The flat finish means that it’s not a stage for Froome or Quintana to go for the win so they don’t really have any incentive to chase. It’s a good stage for Martin and Valverde  but Etixx-QuickStep don’t have the team to control such a tough stage and Movistar need to save some energy for the Alps.

 

At the same time, the start is very hard so it will be a very strong break made up of very good climbers. Only Sky, Movistar and Astana are strong enough to bring them back and we can’t imagine that they will do so. Sky definitely won’t as they have proved on numerous occasions and as said Movistar are also unlikely to do so.

 

What could change the outcome is if a rider just outside the top 10 makes it into the break. Sky will have to keep the break under control and they may get some help from some of the other top 10 teams. In that case, the fast pace in the finale may be enough to bring the break back, especially if a key contender loses ground in the finale. However, that scenario is less probable so we will put our money on a breakaway.

 

With this kind of tough start, only the best climbers have a chance to make it into the break and finish off in such a tough finale. The flat finish means that a fast sprint is an advantage but the final climb is so hard that the best climbers can make a difference. As there will be a tailwind in the flat final section, it is possible for a lone rider to stay away so the most important skills in this stage are good climbing legs.

 

Until now Ilnur Zakarin has had a very quiet race. The strong Russian crashed out of the Giro and didn’t do a single race before he lined up at the Tour. His main goal is to build form for the Olympics and get experience in La Grande Boucle which will be his big goal for 2017.

 

After a slow start, the form is getting better. He stayed with the best for a long time on the Mont Ventoux and he did a good time trial. He has already shown that he wants to be in the breaks, most notably in the very hard stage 10 where he only missed out on the foggy descent from the first big climb. Now he is a lot stronger and the tough start means that he is very likely to make it into the break. At 100%, he is one of the best climbers in the world and he won’t be easy to stop on the steep climb in the finale. Last year he soloed to victory from a strong break in the Giro and he now seems to have the form to repeat that performance in the Tour. Furthermore, he is pretty fast in a sprint so he has options even if he has some company in the finale.

 

Vincenzo Nibali is also building form for the Olympics. The Italian has clearly shown his intentions to go for a stage win and he has even hinted that he has his eyes on the mountains jersey. This is not a crucial stage for Fabio Aru so it’s a day when he can be given some freedom – or at least he has proved that he is ready to take it. The hard start is great for him as are the many descents and the technical nature of the course.

 

Nibali is clearly getting better. He rode poorly in the beginning of the race but he was even stronger than Aru in Arcalis. He was in the Break Royale on stage 10 and he did a good time trial yesterday. He can’t sprint but the stage is hard enough for him to take a solo win.

 

Rui Costa was close in Arcalis where he finished second and again proved that he is a master in saving energy in a break and then be strong in the finale. He was dropped repeatedly on the hardest climb but in the finale he was one of the best, finishing second and staying with Rafal Majka on such a tough climb. This stage suits him even better as the finish is flat and the climbs are shorter. His form seems to be growing and he has been saving energy for this stage. The final climb may be a bit too steep for him but he knows how to time trial his way to the top. He is a good descender and compared to many climbers, he is stronger on the flats. Furthermore, he has a fast sprint.

 

Tom Dumoulin has proved that he is in excellent form and he still has his eyes on another stage win. This one is one of his best chances as the technical nature and the relatively short climbs suit him well. He is definitely strong enough to make it into the break but the question is whether he will try. The stage comes pretty close to the TT so he may prefer to recover a bit as he needs to keep something in reserve for Rio. At the same time, the final climb could be too steep for him. On the other hand, he has a long flat section to make it back and he is very fast in a sprint.

 

Rafal Majka will have to make the difference on the climbs. The Pole has been riding a very aggressive race and tomorrow’s stage is very important for the mountains classification so he has to be on the attack. However, the flat finish is not ideal for him so he has to make the difference on the final climb. He is clearly riding well but it is also evident that he is not at 100%. It won’t be easy for him to get rid of riders like Zakarin, Costa, Nibali and Dumoulin and keep them at bay in the final flat section. On the other hand, his form is growing so you can definitely not rule him out.

 

BMC have their eyes on the teams classification so they need to have a rider in the break. This could open the door for an in-form Damiano Caruso. He already tried to attack in the Arcalis stage and he was in the break on stage 10 so he seems to have the freedom. He is climbing really well and he is very fast in a sprint.

 

As said, there is a small chance that the break will be caught. In that case, Alejandro Valverde is the overwhelming favourite. The Spaniard was a bit short on form at the start of the race but his time trial and great ride on the Mont Ventoux prove that he is getting better and better. The final climb suits him well so he should definitely be up there with the best. Movistar haven’t looked strong but he can probably rely on Sky to control all the attacks in the finale. That means that a sprint is the likely outcome in such a scenario and in that case Valverde will be the overwhelming favourite.

 

The only rider who can realistically hope to beat Valverde is Dan Martin. The Irishman had a bad day on Ventoux but he did one of the best time trials of his life so he is clearly still in great form. He will probably try to attack on the final climb but we doubt that Sky will give him much leeway. He is usually not as fast as Valverde but he has an outside chance.

 

It is guaranteed that Movistar will have riders in the break as they need it both for the teams classification and for tactical purposes. Very often this gives the domestiques a chance to go for the stage win as it was the case for Jesus Herrada and Winner Anacona in Arcalis. Anacona is probably their best card as his form is growing and he is the best climber. However, he is not fast in a sprint so he needs to escape on the final climb.

 

The stage suits Ion Izagirre down the ground. The Basque is a good climber on short, steep ascents, an excellent descender, powerful on the flats and fast in a sprint. However, his form is clearly not at its best and he usually fails to maintain his level for three weeks. However, he still did a good time trial so if he can make it into the break he will be a strong contender.

 

Thomas De Gendt needs to be in the break. The Belgian has to pick up points for the mountains jersey and it’s actually a solid stage for him. It’s not a big mountain stage and the rolling start suits him well. Unfortunately, he is likely to be up against better climbers in the finale and it will be hard for him to follow the best on the final climb which is a bit too steep for him. However, he knows how to go into TT mode and if he can make it back in the finale, he is fast in a sprint.

 

Finally, we will point to Pierre Rolland and Sebastien Reichenbach. Both have lost so much time on GC that they should have a bit more freedom. They have proved that they are among the best climbers and this is the kind of stage that is perfect for riders who have lost a bit of time on GC. However, they are both pure climbers so they both need to arrive solo to win the stage. Furthermore, Rolland is still suffering from the injuries he sustained in stage 8.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Ilnur Zakarin (breakaway)

Other winner candidates: Vincenzo Nibali, Rui Costa (both from a breakaway)

Outsiders: Tom Dumoulin (breakaway), Rafal Majka (breakaway), Damiano Caruso (breakaway), Alejandro Valverde (sprint), Dan Martin (sprint)

Jokers: Winner Anacona, Ion Izagirre, Thomas De Gendt, Pierre Rolland, Sebastien Reichenbach

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