Sunday, 14 July 2013

Mont Ventoux

Today should prove to be one of the most important stages of the Tour de France so far as the race heads into its final week and the real climbing begins. This blog has become popular for it's take on the climbs and summit finishes and today it's Mont Ventoux - one of the toughest, history bound and mythical climbs of France and indeed the race...

It's Bastille day (a special public holiday) in France and crowds at the finish are expected to surpass 500,000 whilst many of them will be expecting a French winner but this will not be easily accomplished.

At 242.5km this is by far the longest stage in the Tour - akin to the spring classics in length - the riders will be in the saddle for around 7 hours and it's going to be extremely tough. There is no brutal 21km climb at the end of the spring classics and if you think that means the race will compensate by having a 220km flat run in to the finish then you would be mistaken.

The stage profile reads like a saw blade and there are three category 4 climbs early on and a third category climb around the half way point - unbelievably riders will also tackle the Col de la Madeleine just before the ascent of Mont Ventoux but the climb isn't even listed on the map or the stage profile even though it's slightly longer and steeper than some of the categorised ones! Then of course comes the Hors category Mont Ventoux itself...

The mystery of Mont Ventoux is based around it's alien landscape and ferocious weather - Mistral winds batter the landscape for 130 days a year lending to the mountains translated name as 'The Windy Mountain.' The climb can suffer from dramatically high temperatures and of course painfully low ones and hypothermia on the pass has led to dozen losing their lives here - perishing in blizzards but today should be a rather warmer affair. The climb was deforested years ago and all that remains is a passing resemblance to a sub-Saharan desert - it's rocky, lifeless.

Of course those with an interest in British cycling history will remember Mont Ventoux for the death of Tom Simpson 2km from the summit on 13th July 1967 during the Tour owed largely to a cocktail of alcohol, amphetamines and blistering heat though this wasn't the first time Simpson had succumbed to the climb - on his first attempt at the climb some years before he described sweating so much that his shorts simply fell down.

So - the climb. At 20.8km it's fair to say this is a brute and it averages around 7.5% which isn't overly steep but coupled with the distance and a certain humble beginnings it's makes for far more painful riding than those numbers justify. Indeed after the first 5km the remaining 16 never drop below 7% in fact many sections stay well above 9% and there are a few surpassing 10% most notably around the midway point. The climb levels off slightly (if levels off is the right term) from kilometre 13 onwards but the final 2 kilometres of the climb will once again rise above 9% in gradient. Whoever takes victory at the top is going to be one tough cookie.

So how will the race pan out? Well it's possible that like yesterday today could be a day for the breakaway especially if some big French names decide to get up the road and make a go of it - look out for riders like FDJ's Thibaut Pinot and it would be a fair bet to assume Thomas Voeckler will be there too. The breakaway will only escape as long as the pace isn't driven along in the main bunch and usually on a stage like this riders would be happy to take it steady with the knowledge that Mont Ventoux is about to blow the race apart but this year might be different.

We have seen Froome come under a lot of attacks and pressure from other teams like Belkin, Movistar and of course Saxobank who have made a conscious effort to drive the pace and try to split the bunch early on in an effort to shed a struggling Sky team - it's days like this where the Loss of Eddy Boss and Kiryienka will become most apparent to Froome and the other teams will try to capitalise. With some early climbing and a choppy course in general we might see a hard pace set from start to finish and if this is the case it's going to be a very difficult day for many in the main bunch.

Of course the highlight of the day is likely to be the ascent of Mont Ventoux and many fans or viewers will likely tune in to the race just as the final climb approaches but a word of warning - there could be much more to this stage than Ventoux and if ever there was a day to tune in early then this would be it...

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