Friday, 5 July 2013

Tour de France Stage 8 - Ax 3 Domaines Summit Finish

The race so far has seen some hilly terrain in Corsica but stage 8 represents the first summit finish as the riders make a fleeting visit to the Pyrenees this weekend. The first 130km of Saturdays stage look relatively un-testing before the race suddenly heads skywards on the Hors category climb of the Col du Pailheres - a 15km brute that averages around an 8% gradient - before plummeting down a 16 kilometre long descent to the foot of the final climb of the day up to Ax 3 Domains...
If so far we have seen only Froome have a little stretch of the legs then expect to see the likes of Contador, Evans, Valverde and Rodriguez show their faces at the front today as the race enters the realm of the grimpeurs. The climb to Ax 3 might not be the full scale GC showdown many are hoping for but it should at least provide a glimpse into who's looking fresh and who's not - expect Contador to try and animate the final kilometres and equally expect to see the Sky train in full swing.
The actual climb to Ax 3 is relatively short in length - 8 kilometres - but all of it is over 7% with some 10% sections thrown in for good measure. The final kilometre of the climb averages over 8% and could act as a springboard for any late attacks especially from those with a kick like Rodriguez and even Froome but this won't see the end of the stage - instead whoever gets over the top first will have to try and survive an almost pan-flat final kilometre run in to the finish - A tough ask if any gaps are minimal. 
While the GC contenders may be contesting a handful of seconds at the finish the stage winner could well come from a breakaway. If a group decides to go before the start of the Col du Pailheres (which we should assume as an almost dead cert - whoever gets to the top of the Pailheres first is likely to end the day in the Polka Dot jersey with the Hors category climb offering up a bag-full of points) then they might just be allowed to stay away depending on whether any 'danger' riders make it into the group or not. If Pierre Rolland wants to cling on to the mountains jersey then he will need to be in this break and if he is then he won't be allowed to stay away to the finish - he could climb with the breakaway and then drop back leaving the other riders in the break to contest a finish.  
This years Tour makes only the briefest appearance in the Pyrenees and stage 8 provides the only summit finish - it's unusual but taking into consideration the final week of the race, it makes more sense to avoid any overkill here. Sundays very difficult stage ends with a descent which makes Saturdays summit finish more of a tantalising offer for riders looking to make their mark on the General Classification - barring next Wednesdays time trial the GC is unlikely to be shaken up again until next Sundays climb up Mont Ventoux which is quite a while to wait for any real splits to form. 
It could be all out war on Ax 3 or it could be a breakaway affair and a sprint amongst the favourites but if the race has been a little flat (terrain and atmosphere) so far then Saturdays stage will be a must watch - especially with next week being piled high with flat, transitional stages as the race moves towards the Alps. Organisers have done a good job with the route this year, hopefully keeping us on tenterhooks until the bitter end...  

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