Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Tour de France Stage 18: Double d'Huez

The Tour de France makes history tomorrow to mark its 100 edition with a double ascent of Alpe d'Huez. Looking above, this profile is enough to strike fear into any professional bike rider but if many will be looking to take it easy and focus on just getting through the day - this stage could also be the last real opportunity for anybody looking to overhaul Chris Froome.
There are still some extremely tough days to come in the saddle following this stage but barring any mechanical incident or crash it's unlikely that the likes of Contador can claw back more than four minutes at Semnoz - the final climb of the Tour on Saturday.
The double ascent of the Alpe tomorrow with four other categorised climbs and lumps and bumps along the way means riders could look at going long. A big attack before or on the first climb of the Alpe d'Huez followed by a speedy descent on the relatively treacherous road to the bottom could put Froome in some difficulty if the pace beforehand has been hard enough to shed some of the already worn and weathered Sky team. 
Alpe d'Huez itself I'm sure needs no introduction with it's fearsome 21 hairpin bends but the first ascent has a sting in it's tale because before the descent riders must tackle another 3km of climbing to the summit of the Col de Sarenne and only then do they tackle the 20km+ descent. One at the bottom the road rises again, this time for the Alpe's summit finish, another gruelling 13.8km of climbing averaging over 8% in gradient with an 11.5% section coming 4 kilometres from the top:
We know all to well that at this stage of the race many riders are looking to defend their positions in the top 10 rather than try to overhaul anybody ahead of them and it's unlikely we will see too many riders brave enough to rise to the challenge. It's a shame, but as long as the current points system is in place we will continue to see conservative riding in the top 10 with competitors knowing there is little more to gain in trying hard to climb the rankings and stand on the podium.
It's not over until the fat French lady sings though and if we can count on somebody to at least try and throw a spanner in Froomes pretty solid works then it's Alberto Contador. Love or hate him he is a rider not willing to give up and winning races is his main aim, whether it be the Tour de France or the Eneco Tour - he turns up with one goal: Winning.
He's looked better since the rest day, stretching his legs on Yesterdays final climb and pushing on on the descent (a little too hard perhaps) and he went all out in today's TT being pipped to the post by Froome alone. There has been some heated exchanges in recent days and the rivalry is hotting up with Chris Froome taking to twitter yesterday and whining about Contadors risky descent - I don't dislike Froome but if Contador wants to race then it's up to him, if he wants to attack the yellow jersey on a descent then I take my hat off to him - he's the only rider trying to make gains and Froome has the choice on whether to follow or not. If he thinks he should be given a free ride to the finish then I suggest he needs to do some homework and rediscover the spirit of racing and the spirit of the Tour. Nothing is a given here, even if you are wearing yellow. Aggressive racing is part and parcel. With emotions currently riding high perhaps there is extra incentive on both sides to strike out and this could make for a good showdown on the Alpe.
Remember that stage in the Vuelta last year? Masterminded by Contador as he slipped away from Joaquim Rodriguez to take the leaders jersey and eventually the race. Attacks and tactics can come at any moment and a stage profile like this lends itself perfectly to some heroics, even if they fail miserably.  

Nerves will play a huge factor tomorrow. So far Froome has struggled to let anybody get even a slight advantage before leaping out of his seat and pushing hard on the pedals - sometimes unnecessarily so. Saxobank have looked strong in numbers and they could put the hurt on tomorrow in much the same why Sky could if they had a fully fit, and fully present team.

Of course the stage also lends itself to a breakaway victor and there is yet to be a French stage win. Winning on a double ascent of the Alpe on your home turf could provide enough motive for the French riders to strike out and try desperately for the win - look out tomorrow for Romain Bardet, I think he might have something left in the tank to produce something special. Of course this won't bother the GC guys too much as the battle will be fought elsewhere but it adds yet another plot to an already enticing stage.

It's a shame the stage is on a Thursday - I myself will be at work and so will many others, it would have been nice to reserve such an epic stage for full televisual viewing by the masses but it wasn't to be. Those lucky enough to watch live should be in for a real treat...

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