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Will Alejandro Valverde save Movistar's Tour by winning the final mountain stage?

Photo: Sirotti

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22.07.2016 @ 18:16 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

A huge drama showed that nothing is decided yet in this year’s Tour de France and things can change again in what could turn out to be a memorable final mountain stage of this year’s race. With a  close battle for the final spots on the podium, more rain and one of the most difficult descents in France all on the menu, the scene is set for a thrilling finale to the biggest race in the world.

 

The course

In the past, the time triallists have always had the upper hand in the Tour de France. With the major climbs all being located far from the traditional finish in Paris, it was widely regarded as being impossible to have a big mountain stage on the penultimate day. To save the excitement for the final days, the organizers often had a time trial in either the final or the penultimate stage.

 

In 2009, a novelty was introduced when ASO made the brave decision of having a mountaintop finish on Mont Ventoux just one day before the end of the race, creating a logistical chaos by moving the entire Tour machine from one part of the country to the other in less than 24 hours. In 2010, 2011 and 2012 they went back to their traditional script before they again embraced the new idea in 2013 with a mountain stage finishing on the climb of Annecy/Semnoz on the penultimate day. In 2014, the time triallists again had the advantage of having a TT as the decisive stage but in a race dominated by climbing, it was only fitting that the 2015 edition of the race was decided with a short, intense stage to the top of the famous Alpe d’Huez climb.

 

This year the organizers have again opted to follow the idea of having a short mountain stage just 24 hours before the big finale in Paris but unlike last year, there will be no summit finish. That doesn’t mean that the stage will be less exciting as it will see the riders return to the famous finish with the steep Col de Joux Plane and the difficult descent to Morzine. It’s a real Tour de France classic that has created lots of drama in the past and will make sure that nothing is decided until only the final parade remains.

 

The short 146.5km stage will start in Megève which will welcome the Tour for the third day in a row, and finish in the ski destination of Morzine. Unlike in the previous stage, there’s a chance to warm up the legs as the riders will first follow the flat river road for 15 kilometres before they will turn into the mountains to go up the category climb of Col des Aravis (6.7km, 7%). The descent then leads to the well-known Alpine city of Le Grand-Bornand where the slightly uphill intermediate sprint will be contested just one kilometre after the end of the downhill section.

 

It is now time for one of the Tour de France classics as the riders will go up the category 1 climb of Col de la Colombiere (11.7km, 5.8%) which makes welcome return after several years of absence. The long descent leads to the Arve River where the riders will continue in a northerly direction along flat roads.

 

The climbing will start again at the bottom of the category 1 climb of Col de la Ramaz (13.9km, 7.1%) which is a relatively regular climb with just two relatively flat sections along the way, one near the bottom and one 3km from the top which is located 53km from the finish. Having turned around, the riders will take on the technical descent that leads to the city of Taninges in the valley where they will follow flat roads for 12.5 kilometres until they will get to Samoëns.

 

This is where the final battle for the Tour de France win will start when the riders hit the HC category climb of Col de Joux Plane (11.6km, 8.5%). It’s a brutal climb that leaves no room to recover and only gets steeper and steeper. In the second half, the gap is constantly above 9% until it levels slightly out at 8% for the final 600m. The top comes 12km from the finish and is followed by three relatively flat kilometres. Then it is time for the difficult descent that leads almost straight to the finish. Only the final 1600m are flat and they even include numerous turns until the riders get to a winding road for the final 900m. The finishing straight is 50m long and 5m wide.

 

The finish in Morzine is a bit of a classic but it has not been used since 2006 when Floyd Landis did his amazing comeback by attacking almost from the gun before soloing to victory after having gone up the Col du Joux Plane in the finale. Carlos Sastre was the best of the rest, putting 16 seconds into Christophe Moreau and is now the official winner of the stage. In the GC battle, Andreas Klöden and Oscar Pereiro gained 16 seconds on their main rivals. In 2003, Richard Virenque rode to a solo win here while Lance Armstrong had one of his rare off-days here in 2000, losing 1.37 to Jan Ullrich on a day when Richard Virenque took another solo win.

 

The finish has also been used in the Criterium du Dauphiné. In 2012, a young Nairo Quintana who was not in GC contention, escaped the Sky stranglehold on the Col du Joux Plane and did an amazing descent to take his first WorldTour win. Cadel Evans attacked on the descent but could only gain 8 seconds on the Sky block of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Michael Rogers and Richie Porte. In 2008, Yury Trofimov proved his potential with a solo win here while Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans used the descent and climb to gain time on their rivals. In 2003, Iban Mayo beat Lance Armstrong and Francisco Mancebo in a 3-rider sprint.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

The rain had a big impact in today’s stage and it could very well play a key role on Saturday too. For most of the day there is a 50-90% chance of rain and thunderstorms. It won’t be hot either as the maximum temperature at the finish will only be 19 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will first have a cross-headwind and then turn into a cross-tailwind for the Col de la Colombiere. It will be a tailwind on the Colde la Ramaz, the descent and the valley and then it will be a crosswind or a cross-tailwind on the final climb and the descent

 

The favourites

Yesterday Chris Froome reiterated that the main goal for the final part of this year’s Tour was to stay safe. That proved to be a tougher challenge that he had probably imagined at the expected rain wreaked havoc on the race and turned things upside down. Yesterday Bauke Mollema was still in podium contention but he now has to be lucky to finish in the top 10. Richie Porte was the red-hot favourite to finish second but he looked like a broken man when he crossed the line after having shown his first signs of weakness. And Chris Froome had a similar expression in the finale as he had when he suffered up the climb to Alpe d’Huez one year ago.

 

The Giro d’Italia was probably decided on the descent as few will argue that Steven Kruijswijk would have been beaten if he hadn’t crashed in stage 19. Today the same could have happened in the Tour but luckily it seems that Froome, Porte and Mollema have all escaped major injuries. Froome still has most of his advantage intact and it still takes a disaster to turn things around. However, today’s drama will definitely have inspired many of the top contenders and there will be lots of hungry riders at the start of tomorrow’s final big mountain stage.

 

The stage also underlined what Romain Bardet already showed at his Tour debut in 2013. The Frenchman has excellent recovery skills and is always flying in the third week. In 2013, he rode very aggressively in the final week and last year he bounced back from a poor start and ended the race as one of the strongest riders, winning a stage and overcoming a large deficit to finish in the top 10. This year he has deliberately aimed to peak in the third week and he has dampened his aggression in the first two weeks. Today he finally went full gas and as it happened in the 2015 Dauphiné, his braveness was rewarded. Tomorrow’s stage suits him even better and he is now in prime position to do what his teammate Jean-Crhistophe Peraud did two years ago: finish second overall in his home race.

 

Nairo Quintana showed signs of improving condition but if he had hoped for a complete turnaround with the arrival of rain, he was left disappointed. Instead, Alejandro Valverde again looked like the strongest Movistar rider. His fast pace in the finale was impressive and he even had enough left to follow Rodriguez in the sprint. It looks increasingly likely that Valverde could have been on the podium if he had been riding for himself from the very beginning.

 

For Joaquim Rodriguez, it was a confirmation of what he already showed yesterday when he did one of the three best time trials of his life (it was up there with the ones he did at the 2013 Tour and at last year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco). The Spaniard has been on the rise throughout the entire race and it is only a hunger knock in stage 17 that prevents him from being in the current top 10. However, his great ride in today’s stage has whetted his appetite for more in tomorrow’s final mountain stage.

 

The battle for the podium is still very close and everything can still change tomorrow. Barring accident, Froome should be safe but Bardet, Quintana, Porte and maybe even Yates can still hope to finish in the top 3. Col du Joux Plane is one of the hardest climbs in the Alps and has often been overlooked when it comes to ranking the toughest Alpine mountains – maybe because there’s always a descent to the finish. That descent is one of the most dangerous in France and with more rain on the menu, it could be just as decisive as the climb itself.

 

Today was the first day in the mountains when it was clear from the beginning that the break wouldn’t make it. Just as we predicted yesterday, Astana controlled things firmly and when they hit the front, it was clear that the break had no chance. Today’s drama should have inspired many GC riders of whom most haven’t won a stage yet. With the battle for the podium being so close, the bonus seconds are also important and this means that several teams have an incentive to bring the break back.

 

That won’t be easy though. For the non-sprinters, this is the final chance to win a stage so we can expect lots of attacks in the beginning. The start is flat but the first climb comes very early so the good climbers should be able to make it into the group. This means that we will again get a very strong break with the likes of Rafal Majka, Jarlinson Pantano and – depending on team tactics – Ilnur Zakarin and Vincenzo Nibali.

 

When the break has gone clear, it will be up to the GC teams to take control. Sky won’t do anything to bring it back as it is all about safety for the British team. However, Movistar haven’t won a stage yet and Valverde’s strong showing in today’s stage must have motivated them to give it a go. Katusha and Astana could have similar plans with Joaquim Rodriguez and Fabio Aru respectively but they also have alternatives in Ilnur Zakarin and Vincenzo Nibali who can go on the attack.

 

Much will depend on what approach Katusha and Astana choose. If Zakarin and Nibali are both in the break, it will probably make it. If not, Movistar, Katusha and Astana should combine forces and try to bring it back. Katusha don’t have the means to control things but Astana and Movistar have. Hence, we expect them to ride hard and create an initial selection with a fast pace on the Col de la Ramaz. That should be enough for them to reel the break in and so we expect it to be a day for the GC riders. As said, however, the break has a chance if Katusha and especially Astana aren’t represented.

 

The penultimate climb comes too early for anyone to make a move so it should all come down to the Col de Joux Plane and its descent. As said, Froome’s only goal is to get to the finish as safely as possible and he doesn’t want to be forced into doing a dangerous descent at daredevil speed. Hence, we expect him to ride defensively and let the other GC riders go for the win.

 

To win the stage, you both have to be a very good climber and a strong descender. The flat finish also means that a good sprint is an advantage. Alejandro Valverde fits the bill perfectly. The Spaniard arrived at the race a bit short on form but he has really found his best legs during the race. He did an excellent first time trial and last Wednesday it was his strong turn on the front that made the race hard. Today he was simply impressive and he was maybe even the strongest rider in the race.

 

Movistar’s main goal is to keep Quintana on the podium and maybe move into second place but Valverde may get a chance to go for the stage. If he has the legs he had today, he will be very close to the best. He is one of the best descenders in the peloton so he will have time to make it back if he loses a bit of ground in the finale. Among the GC riders, he is clearly the fastest so if he is there at the finish, he will be almost impossible to beat. With Froome and Bardet probably riding a bit defensively, Valverde just has to follow the likes of Aru, Quintana, Rodriguez and Porte. Especially the latter will be a tough man to beat but the descent gives him time to get back. An in-form Valverde is our favourite to win the stage.

 

As said, Rodrigeuz has been on the rise since the start of the race and today he proved that it was indeed true when he claimed that a hunger knock was the reason for his poor showing in stage 17. He was clearly one of the best today and this is a stage that suits him really well. He loves steep climbs and he is a very good descender. Furthermore, he is one of the fastest in a sprint. He needs to get rid of the likes of Valverde, Martin and Mollema but that’s definitely not impossible for the in-form Spaniard. He would love to win the final mountain stage of his Tour career and Katusha should go all in for their captain. It would be a fairy tale end if Rodriguez could come out on top.

 

As said, Richie Porte seemed to have been hit on the morale when he crossed the line and again it seems that his fragile mentality is his biggest weakness. However, he showed strength by recovering from his first two knocks of bad luck and if he can do so again tomorrow, he will be very keen to get onto that podium. He doesn’t seem to have suffered any major injuries and today’s time loss was probably more due to his previous chase than bad legs as he rode aggressively on the final climb. Until now he has been one of the best climbers in the race and if he is at 100%, he may be able to ride away on his own. The descent is not ideal for him as he is not known for his descending skills but he may get enough time to hold off his chasers.

 

Daniel Martin bounced back in today’s stage and proved that he is not slowing down yet. It is hard to say how he matches up against the best climbers and he spends so much energy by going on the attack. Tomorrow he has a great chance to win the stage if he can ride a bit more defensively. Only Valverde is faster than him in a sprint so he just has to get rid of the Spaniard. That’s not impossible, especially if Valverde has to work for Quintana. Martin is a great descender so the main challenge for him will be to follow the best on the climb.

 

Vincenzo Nibali claims to be close to his best level and it is indeed true that he has looked strong in the Alps. He was great in stage 17, did a good time trial and was up there until he crashed together with Froome. In fact, Astana were so confident in the Italian that they believed he could mix it up with the GC riders in the finale. Tomorrow he can either go in the breakaway or try to beat the GC riders and he can win in both scenarios. His best chances come from a break and if he is there, he has a big chance as he will be the best descender and one of the best climbers. It will be harder in a GC battle but if he is at his best, he may more freedom and take advantage of the descent.

 

Romain Bardet won today’s stage but actually tomorrow’s stage was his best chance as he is one of the best descenders in the peloton. Now he will probably ride a bit more defensively as a second place on GC is more important than another stage win. Hence, he will probably just follow wheels and he won’t take any risks on the descent. Still it won’t be impossible for him to win. If he gets to the finish with the likes of Porye and Quintana, he will be the fastest in a sprint.

 

Warren Barguil will be keen to go on the attack as he is no longer in GC contention. Today he showed that his legs are getting better and this stage suits him very well. He has proved that he is still one of the best climbers, he descends well and he is not that slow in a sprint. This is his final chance to save a disappointing Tour so he will be fully motivated.

 

As said, a breakaway will have a bigger chance if Ilnur Zakarin is there. The Russian saved energy in the time trial so we were a bit surprised that he didn’t join the break today. It may be all for Rodriguez now but Zakarin could still be given some freedom. If so, he will be one of the best climbers in the break but the final descent will be a challenge. He crashed in the Giro and is still not comfortable on the descents which is another indication that Katusha may want to focus on Rodriguez.

 

Jarlinson Pantano was in the break again today but it would probably have been better to save energy for tomorrow. The downhill finish is ideal for the Colombian who is an excellent descender and very fast in a sprint. However, at this point in a grand tour, it is all freshness and so we expect him to be in the break again tomorrow. With his good descending abilities, he can allow himself to lose a bit of ground on the climb and then unleash his strong sprint in the finale.

 

Alexis Vuillermoz shares many of the same characteristics but he also spent energy today. However, he will still be keen to try again and the finale suits him ideally. He is likely to be up against stronger climbers in the finale but his good descending skills and fast sprint make him an obvious candidate.

 

Serge Pauwels didn’t join the break in today and so he will be keen to go on the attack tomorrow. After a slow start, he has returned to form and he has been one of the strongest in the second half of the race. He has spent a bit too much energy in the breaks but if he can gauge his effort a bit better, this is a good stage for him.

 

Finally, Rafal Majka deserves a mention. He has been on the attack almost every day so he must be tired. He is not a great descender and he is not fast in a sprint so this stage is far from ideal for him. His main goal is the polka-dot jersey so he won’t take any unnecessary risks. On the other hand, he is still fresh and he is clearly one of the best climbers in the race

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Alejandro Valverde

Other winner candidates: Joaquim Rodriguez, Richie Porte

Outsiders: Daniel Martin, Vincenzo Nibali (breakaway or GC battle), Romain Bardet

Jokers: Warren Barguil, Ilnur Zakarin, Jarlinson Pantano, Alexis Vuillermoz, Serge Pauwels, Rafal Majka, Julian Alaphilippe (all from a breakaway)

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