Chris Froome and Richie Porte used the climb to Finhaut-Emosson to confirm what they have shown since the start: that they are the best climbers in the race. There is a big chance that they will deal their rivals another big blow in the second big battle of the four-day block as the 17km uphill time trial in the Alps is perfectly suited to their skills. At the same time, Tom Dumoulin hopes to continue what has been a marvelous Tour de France by claiming a third stage win in what will be a solid test for the big Dutchman.
Since the time trial on the Alpe d’Huez climb in 2004, Tour de France organizers ASO have not had a mountain time trial in their race. The dramatic images of enormous amounts of fans clearly put the safety into question and it seems that ASO have not dared to take the risk of having another mountain TT which would surely attract an unprecedented number of spectators. However, one of the novelties of the 2016 route was the decision to include a time trial that is as close to a mountain TT as one can possible get. However, as it is not held on a mythical climb and includes both a flat section and a descent in the end, it has attracted far less attention than a usual mountain TT would get and hopefully we won’t see the same dangerous scenes as we saw 12 years ago.
For the GC riders, the safety may be less of a concern. Mountain time trials are usually the most important stages as the real climbers can gain huge times here. The climb in stage 18 is less steep and not a real mountain so the gaps will be smaller but there is little doubt that this stage is going to be one of the most important of the entire race.
The stage will bring the riders over 17km from Sallanches to Megève. The riders will stay in the valley for the first three kilometres, following the L’Arve River, but then the climbing hostilities will begin. A right-hand turn leads them into the mountains as they hit the Cote de Domancy. It’s a 2.5km climb with an average gradient of a massive 9.4%, with the final two kilometres even averaging more than 10%. The first time check will be taken at the top after 6.5km of racing.
The next kilometre will be almost flat and then the road slowly starts to climb at a gradient of 4-5% for the next three kilometres. Along the way, the second time check will be taken at the 10km mark. Then it’s time for the final climb, the Cotes des Chozeaux (3.1km, 5.4%) which is very irregular as two kilometres average more than 8% while the rest of the climb is almost flat. The final time check will be taken one kilometre from the top which comes with 2.5km to go. The final part of the stage is slightly downhill but with almost no turns, meaning that it is not a place for great descenders to gain time. There are only one turn and two roundabouts to handle in the finale, with the final obstacle coming 100m from the line.
Megève last hosted the finish of a major bike race at the 2004 Criterium du Dauphiné when Iban Mayo won a tough 5km prologue with less than a second over Tyler Hamilton. Lance Armstrong was third, one second behind the Basque who would go on to have a great race and later abandon the Tour de France after a poor performance.
The heat was absolutely brutal in today’s stage and many riders will be pleased to learn that the temperature will now drop massively. Thursday will be a sunny day but in Megeve, it will be 10 degrees colder than it was today, with the temperature peaking at just 23 degrees. Furthermore, there is a 10% chance of a shower throughout the afternoon.
There will be a light wind from a westerly direction which will get slightly stronger throughout the first part of the afternoon. This means that it will be a cross-tailwind in the flat first part, a cross-headwind on the first climb and then a cross-tawilwind will lead to a crosswind section. From there, it will gradually become more of a cross-headwind for the final part of the stage.
Stage 17 ended as a bit of a déjà vu and did little else than confirming what we have seen since the beginning of the race. Richie Porte and Chris Froome are the strongest climbers in the race and Sky have such a strong team that only Porte can break their stranglehold. Today Wout Poels was even the third best rider in the race and as long as the Dutchman is climbing like that, there is no way that anyone can do anything against the formidable race leader.
The stage also removed the final bit of doubt when it comes to Nairo Quintana. Some were suggesting that the windy conditions had taken their toll on the Colombian and that this was the explanation for his poor showing. However, today he wasn’t troubled by any windy and he had even had one day to recover from his struggles of the second week. Nonetheless, his attacks were pretty poor and Poels neutralized them with apparent easy. There is no way that Quintana will be able to turn things around but to the credit of Movistar, one has to say that they gave it a try for the victory. They sacrificed Alejandro Valverde’s top 5 in an attempt to put Froome under pressure. Ultimately, that turned out to be a bad decision but at least no one can say that they rode conservatively in an attempt to have two riders in the top 5.
The stage also confirmed that Louis Meintjes keeps getting better and better and as we have claimed since the start of the race, he will be one of the best in the third week. As we said yesterday, Romain Bardet and Fabio Aru are on the rise but we were surprised by the strong showing from Adam Yates. There was always going to be some concerns about his ability to recover in the third week. Last year he was very strong in the final part of the race but back then he didn’t go full gas all day. Of course the final climb suited him well but the way he almost closed the gap to Porte and Froome in the finale is a clear testament to the fact that Orica-BikeExchange probably have the two most exciting grand tour talents in their ranks: Esteban Chaves and Adam Yates.
Bauke Mollema showed the first signs of weakness but limited his losses well. That’s slightly worrying for the Dutchman as it must give some bad memories of what happened in 2013. Back then he was sitting in second place when the race left the Pyrenees but he faded in the final week. Illness was part of the explanation but it has been the case every year that the Dutchman seems to be less strong in the third week. He is a bit of a diesel engine that never cracks completely but there is a bit of a trend in his tendency to fade slightly in the tail end of the race.
Any signs of weakness will be revealed in the most brutal manner in the coming days. The next three stages are very tough and will probably turn into a bit of an elimination race. Today Froome clearly rode very defensively, using a minimum amount of energy to avoid any time loss, knowing that another key stage is coming up. Thursday’s 17km time trial is not a place where you can hold anything back and it will probably create bigger time gaps than any of the mountain stages where Sky will control things firmly.
Mountain time trials are usually more important than any other stage. With no tactics, it all comes down to climbing skills and this means that the climbers can create huge differences. These stages always suit the climbers and TT skills mean nothing in this kind of stage. However, this stage is different than those usually seen in the Giro and the Vuelta where the riders face a real mountain. The real climbers will only really excel on the steep first climb while the more powerful guys will benefit from the flat start and the relatively easy gradients later in the stage. That makes it more comparable with the Col d’Eze time trial which is known from Paris-Nice. Still it’s a day for GC riders and climbers and not for time triallists and there is no chance that Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara will be in the mix for the stage win.
This year lots of time trials have been ruined by bad weather which have given unequal conditions for the early and late starters. Tomorrow the wind will pick up slightly which will be an advantage of the early starters. However, this stage is about climbing and naturally the good climbers will all start late. Instead, the chance of rain could have an impact as a shower may hit the race at some point. However, the final descent is not technical so we don’t expect it to play a massive role.
This means that we should have a pretty honest battle between the best riders and this naturally turns Chris Froome into the overwhelming favourite. The Brit was unable to match Tom Dumoulin in the first time trial – in fact he was not even close – but he was much stronger than anybody else. This stage has the perfect mix that makes him very hard to beat. There is not enough flats for Dumoulin to really gain massive amounts of time, there is a steep climb where Froome will be much stronger than the Dutchman and there is an uphill section of 4-5% where a powerful rider like Froome will be much better than the tinier guys like Quintana, Yates, Bardet and Aru.
Froome can use the different sections to gain time on different riders. He is the most versatile rider in the peloton and the only rider who will be one of the very best everywhere. He has been the best climber in the race so far and was very powerful on the flats in Montpellier and the first time trial. Today he clearly held something back and there is little doubt that a stage win here is a huge goal for him. We find it very hard to imagine that anyone will be able to beat the race leader.
His big rival is his friend Richie Porte. The Australian is showing no sign of weakness yet and every concern about his tendency to fade or have a bad day has been put to rest until now. His only poor ride came in the time trial where he started strongly but faded in the wind. That was no surprise as he has always had it hard in windy TTs. In fact, he was the second best behind Dumoulin on the first climb so it was only in the flat sections that he struggled.
Porte loves mountain time trials. We have already compared this stage to the Col d’Eze TT at Paris-Nice and that’s great news for Porte. In fact, the Australian has won that stage in dominant fashion twice. He is the only GC rider that can match Froome in the flat section and until now Froome hasn’t been able to drop Porte on the climbs. We still don’t believe that anyone can beat Froome but Porte is the only GC rider with a real chance to do so.
The big question mark for the stage will be Tom Dumoulin: will the amount of climbing be too much for the strong Dutchman? Many tend to regard him as a real TT specialist for flat time trials but in fact what he loves are hilly courses. It is no wonder that Friday’s performance was maybe the best of his life and that came on a route that was anything but flat.
Of course this time trial is very different and it will be much harder for Dumoulin. However, Dumoulin is a great climber. Actually, he almost won the Vuelta last year and to do that you need to be an excellent climber. Furthermore, he always approaches the climbs with the same strategy: to go into TT mode and not follow the attacks. Recall that he barely lost any time to the GC riders when he won the stage to Arcalis which proves that he can go very fast on a mountain when he doesn’t have to be concerned with anyone else. Furthermore, he has the advantage of not having had to dig deep for the last few days.
On the other hand, Dumoulin is a bit inconsistent in the grand tours and he openly admits that this is a bit of a weakness. He had a bad day last Sunday when he was in the break and tomorrow he needs to be on a very good day to win. At the same time, the first climb is very steep and here he will probably lose a bit too much time to challenge Froome. Hence, we don’t put him in third place on our list of favourites.
As said, Adam Yates is showing no sign of weakness and this is a great stage for him. He is a poor time triallist but mountain time trials are different. In fact, the Brit is tailor-made for short explosive efforts and so this time trial is really suited to him. He will suffer in the first flat section but his surprisingly good TT last Friday proves how much his time trialling has improved. If he can limit his losses there, he will be absolutely flying on the climb.
Alejandro Valverde sacrificed himself for his leader in today’s stage and so the result doesn’t reflect how strong he is. In fact, the Spaniard has seemed to be better than Quintana for most of the race and his form is clearly growing. He did one of the best time trials in stage 13 and that stage suited him far less than this one. Being relatively explosive, this irregular and short course is really good for Valverde and many will remember what kind of excellent mountain time trial he did in the Giro one day after having an apperenly bad day. Tomorrow he doesn’t have to work for Quintana so we expect a great ride from Valverde
Bauke Mollema had a difficult day today but he did well to limit his losses. He is not a time trial specialist but his excellent performance in stage 13 clearly showed how much he has improved. He revealed that he has worked a lot on his time trialling abilities, especially uphill and that should come in very handy in this stage. He is more powerful on the flats than some of the real climbers and the relatively easy gradients suit a strong rider like Mollema well. He may not be as strong as he was a few day ago but he should still do well here.
We are very curious to see how Fabio Aru will do. The Italian is clearly getting stronger and stronger and so he should be one of the best here. The flat part won’t suit him but the climb is really good for him. Many will remember how he almost beat Quintana in a mountain time trial at the 2014 Giro. This course suits him far less but he should still be one of the best.
The same goes for Romain Bardet. He is an even worse time triallist than Aru but this stage is more about climbing legs and freshness. Bardet is clearly getting stronger and it is worth remembering that he actually did a very good time trial at last year’s Tour de Romandie. That stage suited him far less than this one so he should be up there with the best.
How will Nairo Quintana do? Going into the race, he would be one of the big favourites for this stage. He has improved his time trialling a lot and he loves mountain time trials. He did a very good Col d’Eze TT as a youngster and he won the mountain TT at the 2014 Giro. However, he is clearly far from his best form and he is simply not climbing well enough to win. On the other hand, he is still one of the best so of course he deserves to be mentioned.
Movistar want to win the teams classification so they will have several riders going full gas. In addition to Valverde and Quintana, they have both Nelson Oliveira and Ion Izagirre. On paper, it’s a great stage for Izagirre who is one of the best in the world in hilly time trials. Unfortunately, he seems to be pretty tired so we are not convinced that he will be up there. As opposed to this, Oliveira is obviously in great form. He has really been climbing well in this race and the climbs here aren’t steep enough to really challenge him. He is strong on the flats and he has lots of confidence after his third place in the first TT. He won’t be third again but he can definitely be in the top 10.
Finally, we will point to Ilnur Zakarin. The Russian went deep in today’s stage and he may opt to save energy for another big attack in Friday’s stage. However, this form is obviously excellent and this is a good test for the Olympic TT. He went full gas in the first time trial and he may do so again. At the moment, he is clearly one of the best climbers in the race and he is one of the best in the world for a hilly time trial.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Chris Froome
Other winner candidates: Richie Porte, Tom Dumoulin
Outsiders: Adam Yates, Alejandro Valverde, Bauke Mollema, Fabio Aru
Jokers: Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana, Ion Izagirre, Nelson Oliveira, Ilnur Zakarin
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