Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Tour de France 2013 : Stage 18 Preview

I MAY have already said this earlier in the race but if I did, and apologies if I did, I lied! Because THIS is the one stage not to miss!

The organisers have wanted to include as many iconic and infamous monuments to the tour as possible, and no tour is complete without the inclusion of Alpe d'Huez.

The Alpe is 13.8km with an average of 8.4%. It starts however at a gradient of 10.4% and just after the village of Huez it maxes out at 11.5%.

It is so iconic and so linked to the tour that each of it's famous 21 hairpin bends are named after previous winners here.

But it is not just the numbers or the hairpin bends that make it so memorable. For this, to the average cycling fan, is Mecca, Glastonbury and Las Vegas all rolled into one.

They come in their thousands. For years it used to be known as Dutch mountain as the Netherlanders turned the mountain orange. Now each corner seems to be adopted by a country, turn 10 for example is I believe Irish corner.

The road up to the Alpe was closed on Sunday, making the only way up it either by bike or on foot. People will have started camping there from last weekend, and possibly even earlier.

By the Tour arrives the atmosphere will be at fever pitch and it has been known for the crowd to get a little bit out of hand.

Taking all of this together makes the Alpe one of sport's greatest spectacles. But the organisers have taken it a step further this year.

Because we don't just climb it once, we're going up it twice!

For the first time in Tour history we are going to peel right and head over the the second category Col de Sarenne before heading back down to Le Bourg-d'Oisans and doing it all over again.

The stage itself runs a total of 172.5km from Gap to Alpe-d'Huez and takes in a total of six climbs, the Col de Manse (cat 2), Rampe du Motty (cat 3), Col d'Ornon (cat 2) as well as the two ascents of the Alpe (cat HC) and the Sarenne (cat 2).

It will be a stage that will see plenty of attacking from the GC men but the timing could be critical. Do you go on the first climb of the Alpe? The final run up? Do you try your luck on the tricky and technical descent of the Sarenne?

Then there is the question of who are you attacking. Following the time trial Chris Froome has opened up a massive lead over his nearest rival. Alberto Contador is second but he is 4 min 34 seconds adrift. Bauke Mollema is now 4th but has slipped to 6.23.

People will still want to put Froome under pressure on the off chance he will crack big style but the likelihood, barring any mechanical or other mishap, is that the Brit will ride into Paris on Sunday as the victor.
  So if Froome is now practically out of reach, focus for the rest of the top men will be on the remaing two steps on the podium and in making/retaining a top 10 position. And there are plenty of opportunities here.

If the top contenders keep looking at each other then someone may get away and gain a bit of time. We saw this on Mont Ventoux as the likes of Sylvain Chavanel and Mikel Nieve had a go and for a while they managed to get away.

However that advantage didn't last for too long when the Sky hammer went down.

And I can't expect the same again up the Alpe. I really can't see anybody outside of the top GC men winning the stage. Froome will be desperate to win here in the yellow jersey, regardless of the fact he doesn't really need to chase down every move. It would rubber stamp his victory and would be prove he is the best rider by far in this race (even if it may not silence the doubters).

Movistar are clearly planning something too, evident by time trial specialist Jonathan Castroviejo and Andrey Amador taking it easy in the TT. They will look to use Alejandro Valverde and Rui Costa on the climbs, either as super-domestiques or by getting them to attack constantly, to set Nairo Quintana up for the win, and hopefully a podium spot.

Contador will still fancy his chances of catching Froome and Saxo Tinkoff will also want Roman Kreuziger, who has moved up to 3rd, to retain that podium spot. They used these two to attack Froome on Tuesday and expect both to be active again.

The Belkin pair of Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema will be under serious threat. Ten Dam lost a minute into Gap and I think will drop away from the top spots. Mollema has done well so far though, despite a tough time trial, and may be able to stay with Froome and co.

The only outsider I can come up with is Joaquin Rodriguez. He has had a poor tour by his standards but does seem to be showing signs of coming into form. He is afr enough down on GC to maybe be given a little leeway and that might be enough to snatch the stage win.

Depending on Movistar's tactics Valverde may sneak away but it is likely when Quintana attacks, and it is a case of when not if, he will be caught by Froome's group.

But two ascents of Alpe d'Huez will punish even the best riders, including Froome.
  Once again this legendary mountain will play host to another spectacular stage where anything could happen.

And one you really need to watch!


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