The last day in the mountains offers the riders quality over quantity in terms of the mountain passes today. After the previous days in the Pyrenees, the early Cat 3 climbs will barely be perceivable by a bunch acclimatised to the unrelating kilometres of sustained climbing followed by taxing descending. Despite the HC summit finish at Hautacam, all eyes are focused upon the legendary Col du Tourmalet where podium contenders may be left short by a pushed tempo from Vincenzo Nibali, though the real battles will come between Alejandro Valverde, Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Péraud.
The Tourmalet is a deceptive climb, with the road heading skywards before they have barely begun the approach, but these first 5km are not to be trusted as the riders are lured into a comfortable rhythm. It soon becomes apparent after this that Col du Tourmalet is an entirely different beast, by the time they reach the 10km mark its true colours show through with 10% gradients. It will have an impact upon the GC, but it may not become apparent until the peloton turn onto the climb up to the summit finish. Descending will be rapid, offering AG2R another opportunity to expose the supposed weakness of Thibaut Pinot, though he has not appeared to struggle with the downhill so far.
Ascending Hautacam is an arduous task of ever-changing gradients and ramps which will leave riders struggling to find the right gear or rhythm the whole way up. Though sections are officially marked as 10% – 11%, the reality of the climb sees parts even in excess of this, meaning the 5% parts will be light relief after double digits. It is a brutal climb which will ask serious questions of those fighting for the win as to when to attack and how hard; whoever wins will require a display of brains as well as brawn.
In terms of profile, the stage suits a breakaway staying away for the majority of today, before the inevitably diminished group duels for the win atop Hautacam. Col du Tourmalet will have a large impact upon the GC attackers, but given the long descent down into the final climb, its effects will only be felt once the contenders start getting out of the saddle and discover they have been robbed of energy for the last ascent. Other than a Vincenzo Nibali stage win today, it would appear that Rafal Majka has secured the Polka Dots for a team who must have been panicking once Alberto Contador climbed into the team car; he and Joaquim Rodriguez will stay amongst the pack with the ‘dots’ competition over.
Vincenzo Nibali could sit back and watch the fireworks today as Thibaut Pinot, Jéan-Christophe Peraud, Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet all test each other’s nerve for the sake of the podium in anticipation of the time-trial. But Nibali seems eager to display his dominance at every opportunity, so it would not come as much of a surprise if he surpasses the in-fighting to sail away towards increasing his time gap even further.
With the Polka Dots finished, Yellow Jersey firmly glued to the little Italian’s shoulders and little chance of movement in the top 20 of GC; it seems like ANYBODY could make the break today. Radioshack, Garmin and Sky could all do with making themselves known in the escapees after below-par and injury ravaged tours. No doubt a French presence will be apparent with Europcar, Cofidis or Bretagne-Séché putting a rider or two up the road in hope of a stage win.
Ultimately, the fireworks amongst the general classification is guaranteed in order to cement podium hopes, but (beyond being clairvoyant) I cannot see anybody managing to pick the day’s victor.