Friday, 5 July 2013

Tour de France 2013 : Stage 8 Preview

STAGE eight will really throw the cat amongst the pigeons as the race moves into the Pyrenees and the high mountains.

For a week now I have been talking of the likes of Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel. However don't expect to hear or read anything about them for a good few days.

Instead It will be the big favourites who the focus will switch to, the riders who have designs of standing on top of the podium in Paris. This is their first chance to really show what they are about.

The stage is 195km long and goes from Castres to 3-Ax Domaines. A small cat 4 climb 26km into the stage is a mere footnote of what is to come.

First up is the Col de Paiheres which is an HC mountain, i.e. beyond categorisation, and tops out at 2001m above sea level. It is 15.3km long (that's 9.5 miles) and has an average gradient of 8%. It's maximum gradient is 10.5% which it reaches for 2km of it's total length. It's summit is just 29km from the finish.

This will be where the first shots fired in anger will take place. Those that want the stage win and those targeting the King of the Mountains jersey will definitely attack here. The main GC contenders may wait until the final climb.

That climb of 3-Ax Domaines is a Cat 1 and climbs 607m to finish 1350m above sea level. It is shorter in length than the Paiheres at 7.8km although it has a steeper average gradient of 8.2%.

The last time we were here in 2010 the winner was Christophe Riblon of AG2R, which came from a breakaway. It is unlikely that this will be the outcome again.

The one definite we have is that there will be a new yellow jersey come teatime on Saturday. The question is will it be the final change of this years Tour?

If all the favourites were to come in together Team Sky's Chris Froome would take over the lead, level on time with his team mate Richie Porte. Third would be Alberto Contador who would find himself just 6 seconds behind.

Froome is the better time trialer so others, like Contador and Joaquin Rodriguez, must try and put some time into him in the mountains. Sky will know this and will be quite happy to set a fast pace on the final climb in much the same way as they did on La Planche des Belle Filles last year, a stage that saw Froome take the stage and Sir Bradley Wiggins take the race leadership.

That day they blew virtually the full race apart and I would expect them to try something similar here. This mountain is longer than La Planche but not as steep and while some of the personnel has changed, Sky certainly still has the firepower to make it difficult.

They would be completely happy taking over the race lead as well and to defend it all the way to Paris. If the opportunity comes to take the stage as well they will take it so Froome or Porte are definitely in the mix for this one.

The others may be content to let them get on with it and not attack, knowing that tomorrow sees an even harder stage. But if they want to have any chance of winning the tour they can't really wait and need to take every opportunity.

Contador is the type of rider to give it a go, on a number of occasions if necessary. He didn't look on the best of form during the Criterium de Dauphine and admitted that he was only about 80-90%. However he also said that was where he wanted to be and by the tour he would be 100%. He has stayed out of trouble so far and I think he will be able to stay with the Sky train. It would be a big a big surprise if he gets distanced.

BMC have the twin threats of Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen. Evans has come here as the team leader with the young American acting as his main support. Evans managed to stay with Sky last year and while I don't think he'll attack, he should be able to finish with the leaders. Any slip from him though and Van Garderen will be ready to take over his mantle, should the team decree it.

Rodriguez has no choice, he has to attack and gain time in the mountains. He is not good against the clock and after the TTT he finds himself 25 seconds behind Froome. Whether he finishes in front of, with or behind Froome on this stage will depend on the number and severity of his attacks. Shouldn't lose too much time though, if any.

It will be interesting to see how the others go. Movistar have an all star climbing team with Alejandro Valverde, Rui Costa, Amedy Amador and Nairo Quintana, although the Colombian wonderkid seems to have spent more time on the floor recently than the bike. Garmin likewise bring some big climbing talent in Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky. Both teams will want to test the waters at some point in the Pyrenees. They should have strength in depth but can they challenge the Sky dominance?

Elsewhere Bauke Mollema had a wonderful Tour de Suisse, winning stage two and finishing second overall, and he has enjoyed a fairly trouble free tour so far. He could give the low countries something to cheer about after their big favourite Jurgen Van de Broeck withdrew on stage 6.

Astana have had an awful tour so far losing Andrey Kashechkin, Janez Brajkovic and Robert Kiserlovski. It will be up to Jakob Fuglsang to try and rescue the situation, although without his best three  lieutenants in the mountains it will be difficult. Don't rule him out as an outsider though.

But if you want an outsider for the stage then think Orange!

The Pyrenees are the domain of the Basque's. Their red and green flags will be very visible throughout our stay in the mountains as will their team, Euskatel-Euskadi.  Euskatel do not have anyone who can really challenge for the overall win but they do have some very good climbers in their ranks and in Igor Anton and Mikel Nieve they have two men who could well be targeting a top 10 finish in Paris.

Expect them to be on the attack for the full day and look to Nieve as an outsider for the stage.

With this being the first foray into the mountains you can't be certain of anything yet. We will know more by the end of the day however and if you've never watched cycling before, this is the stage for you!

The Tour begins in earnest now!

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