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Le Tour de France – Stage 21 Preview

Course:

So after three weeks and twenty stages, the peloton finally approach their intended destination of the famous Parisian avenue that is the Champs Élysées. Tradition remains on Stage 21, a contrast to a race which has started in Utrecht, included one time trial, few sprints stages and concluded the general classification the day before Paris upon Alpe d’Huez. Resisting the temptation tinker with the famous last stage of Le Tour de France has meant we still bolster a full lineup of the spiriting talent which started this race, motivated by this final gallop in Paris to haul themselves over the mountains which stood before them.

Beginning in Serves-Grand Paris Seine Ouest, the riders have been set an extremely modest 109.5km to ride in order to formally finish 2015’s Tour de France. The only climb of today and the final of the entire race is completed after 10.5km in the saddle, the Category 4 Côte de l’Observatoire lasting for 2.2km and average a simple enough 4.1% throughout. From this point onwards it is bound to be a leisurely roll into the Paris suburbs on flat terrain which must feel like some of the tour’s fastest descents after yesterday’s efforts.

The usual finishing circuits begin after they have clocked up a little under 40km of riding, crossing the line first time a short distance later and signalling the return of hostilities for the last time at this race. With its gentle drag upwards and presence of cobbles, the Champs Élysées remains one of the most stressful day’s for the riders in the entire three weeks of riding. With each pass of the finishing line the tempo is seen to ratchet up a notch, the tenth and final pass setting the scene for the most decisive moments of Stage 21. Two tight 90-degree bends are present around the flamme rouge and once inside the last kilometre, the teams aiming to position their key man ahead of the bunch kick will need to successfully negotiate the two long sweeping bends which exit onto the 400m finishing straight, otherwise their chances of a final victory will be lost with in those concluding turns.

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Contenders:

The clear favourite for today’s win is Lotto-Soudal’s André Greipel, the German having dominated the sprints this year convincingly. He is yet to win on the Champs Élysées and could finally break his duck thanks to the sort of form which has seen his rivals struggle to challenge him in a consistent fashion during the race. His biggest disadvantage is how he fails to recover in time for the sprint off the back of the usual run of transition stages which link the final Alpine days with the last day in Paris; let alone how today comes off the back of yesterday’s Alp d’Huez finish. Greipel has been climbing better than expected however, comfortably placed within the grupetto on every day alongside his rivals such as Mark Cavendish and John Degenkolb. The absence of Greg Henderson within his train will be a negative for him on a day where positioning is crucial, though he seems to have improved when having to compensate for poor placing in the sprints. Perhaps the only thing that could stop him is the possibility of a heavy downpour during the final lap of Stage 21, the rain often seeing Greipel shrink from the front of affairs in fear of crashing and ruining his season.

Mark Cavendish remains one of the favourites for Stage 21, despite having only put in a couple of convincing performances to truly test and beat André Greipel during the rare sprint stages. Sadly for him, he has lost an immense amount of firepower from his leadout train; Tony Martin, Mark Renshaw and Michal Kwiatkowski having all abandoned the race. Lacking the high end speed of Martin and Kwiatkowski is bad enough, but adding the lack of his leadout man Renshaw too; Cavendish is truly handicapped heading into today’s stage. Teammates Matteo Trentin and Zdenek Stybar are expected to pick up the slack for Cavendish, but although great riders, neither have the engine or skills to compensate for their absent teammates. Though Cavendish is probably still the fastest man in a sprint, his dominance of the Champs Élysées in recent years has been down to the immense support which has seen him exit the final bend in pole position almost every time. This seems unlikely to happen again today and instead he will be better off hiding in the wheels and launching a late sprint similar to that which won him his sole victory so for at Le Tour.

Many will be be deterred from backing the Norwegian Alexander Kristoff as his performances have not been quite as scintillating as expected off the back of a brilliant Spring campaign. However, Kristoff often exits the attritional tail end of a Grand Tour with strength and it would be no surprise if he has been pacing his efforts comfortably in the grupetto to expend as little energy as possible to make each day’s time cut. There is no doubt that Kristoff has targeted this final stage as his major goal for the entire race and now enters it with a strong advantage in the form of a leadout train which appears only equalled by Lotto-Soudal. Though he is not as fast as Griepel and Cavendish, Kristoff should be fresher, has more support than his British rival and really benefits from the gentle incline which runs up to the finishing line. Weather is similarly now problem for this tough classics styled rider, and if anything, he would have preferred a long, harder day to close Le Tour de France.

John Degenkolb has had a reasonably quiet race, but has still put in encouraging displays which earn him inclusion as a true contender for Stage 21. Generally speaking, Degenkolb often exits the last mountain stages of a Grand Tour in good condition, often underrated as a good climber due to his successes as a sprinter and classics specialist. Similar to Alexander Kristoff, freshness is bound to be his biggest advantage over his faster finishing rivals such as Mark Cavendish and André Greipel; as well as a the slight drag to the line. Degenkolb also has the next best leadout after Lotto-Soudal and Katusha for today, meaning he should be better position than expected and the reigning Paris-Roubaix champion will certainly have no issues with tackling the possibility of wet cobblestones in the finale.

Now would be the perfect occasion for Peter Sagan to finally convert his podium placings into a stage victory, adding the cherry to another dominant Green Jersey compeition which he choked of life not long after Greipel’s last win. In comparison to those above him, he lacks the sustained high end speed to contest these simple sprint finishes, though has demonstrated a new found turn of pace this year. His positioning ability has fluctuated greatly this year and he will have no support whatsoever as usual from Tinkoff-Saxo. Some atrocious weather conditions could level the playing field slightly for the Slovakian champion, but he ultimately looks resigned to come within a whisker of another win and finish with the Green Jersey and zero wins.

Arnaud Demare, Davide CimolaiBryan Coquard, Michael MatthewsRamunas NavardauskasEdvald Boasson Hagen are all likely names to round out the top ten here in Paris. Given that the chance of bad weather seems a given on Stage 21, any wet conditions will make the peloton anxious to stay upright, slowing them down and providing a breakaway with a much better chance of causing an upset similar to that of this year’s Giro d’Italia finale. Jan BakelantsRohan DennisStephen CummingsLuke Durbridge and Sep Vanmarcke all possess the skills to instigate such a move and give the peloton something difficult to pull back to guarantee them a sprint finish.

Outcome:

1st Alexander Kristoff 2nd Andre Greipel 3rd Peter Sagan

Le Tour de France – Stage 20 Preview

Course:

The last tango; Stage 20 is poised to witness that finale duel between the general classification favourites before Paris. Offering Nairo Quintana’s last opportunity to try and crack Chris Froome in spectacular fashion and seize the maillot jaune at the death. Obviously, to imbue a stage with such potential drama requires an imposing selection of parcours to instil a sense of dread within those trying to cement their position or simply cling on for one more day.

Similar to yesterday, Stage 20 is an intense Alpine day which lasts for only 110.5km from the start in Modane to the finish atop Alpe d’Huez. A short mountains day intended to pressurise the entire race with so little road to attack upon, here there is no point in saving yourself for the latter stages; it is an all guns blazing affair en route to Alpe d’Huez. One major change to the intended route of today’s stage is the removal of the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier doubleheader, a combination which saw much drama in 2011’s Tour de France, now replaced by a second alternative ascent of the Col de la Croix de Fer in two days due to a landslide covering the roads around the Galibier.

Having started, the peloton will once again thread their way in and around St-Jean-de-Maurienne and begin their day’s climbing requirements after only 25km have been reached. Two climbs in an entire day of riding could seem generous when first heard, but opening with the HC Category Col de la Croix de Fer is far from a generous after almost three weeks of riding so far. It is 29km from bottom to top and averages a modest 5.2% to grind the legs down all the way, but the real nature of the climb is revealed when splitting the ascent in two halves. Its opening 12km are actually much harder than the rest of the climb, maintaining a gradient of between 9% – 10% for around 12km, before easing significantly to the point of flat terrain for a constant 11km. Only 6km are left to the top by this point, all of which are contested at between 7% – 8% to the top.

A long descent follows from the summit and is less technical than those which we have seen the riders testing one another upon in the last few days. Bourg d’Oisans then signals the day’s intermediate sprint point, immediately after which they turn onto the opening slopes of the day’s crucial battleground; Alpe d’Huez. The HC Category climb is shorter than its predecessor at 13.8km and averages 8.1% on paper, the opening kilometres of this 21 hairpin long ascent are pitched at around 10% and only ease by another one or two percent for the first 7km. A lull in the gradient will then follow, failing to indicate the sudden surge up to 11.5% which only lessens to 9% for the following kilometre. Life gets somewhat easier as they approach the summit, the gradient then hovering around 5% for the final bends after which they negotiate a pair of roundabouts and turn onto the finishing straight 200m from the line.

 

 

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Contenders:

The day’s focus will be placed heavily upon Chris Froome as his form is scrutinised during the third week of a Grand Tour which has often seen him fade. His rival Nairo Quintana did pull some time from him yesterday, but there was no impression of Froome clinging onto his lead and having to invest everything in limiting his losses. He paced his efforts incredibly well and was focused upon damage limitation for the minimum amount of energy he was willing to invest ahead of this testing finale upon Alpe d’Huez. Yesterday’s final kilometres may have included a small amount of sandbagging by Froome and he remains the favourite to drive home his advantage and win atop one of France’s most famous climbs.

Nairo Quintana looks to be coming into his usual strength at the tail-end of a Grand Tour, attacking Froome convincingly yesterday and eroding his lead by a modest margin. It is likely that the Colombian would have preferred a longer climb to decide this Tour de France, but given his explosive attacking capabilities, he is bound to give it everything in an attempt to crack Froome at last. The Movistar leader remains the biggest threat to Froome’s stage and tour winning ambitions today.

Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali are still active at this race and are eager to maintain their profile by attacking on this final mountain stage. The Italian took the win yesterday and essentially saved his tour, while Contador is clearly suffering from his Giro d’Italia exploits quite acutely now; clearly lacking the top-end form to attack his podium rivals.

French riders are always motivated to try and win on Alpe d’Huez and there are three clear favourites to challenge the general classification big guns for stage honours. Romain Bardet needs to shore up his hold on the Polka Dot Jersey and will be inclined to either attack on the Col de la Croix de Fer to take any available points, or go for total glory by winning the stage and the jersey simultaneously atop Alpe d’Huez. Pierre Rolland has been active throughout the mountains during this tour but has still struggled to secure a stage win, coming close when riding home for second behind a flying Bardet a couple of days ago. It is likely that he will once again request his Europcar team to work hard marshalling the breakaway and aim to set himself up for another attack which puts him into a strong group late into the stage. Much of the home support was tied up in Thibaut Pinot, sadly his general classification hopes evaporated within the first week and he is now only here to try and save some face by winning a stage. Pinot has been relatively quiet as of late on the climbs and it seems certain that he will once again come to the fore, hoping to take one of the biggest prizes in French stage racing.

Some stronger climbers are still performing well at this race, so Robert Gesink, Steven Kruijswijk, Alejandro Valverde, Jakub Fuglsang and Rafa Majka all capable of mixing it up with the very best on Alpe d’Huez.

Outcome:

1st Chris Froome 2nd Nairo Quintana 3rd Thibaut Pinot

Outsider: Romain Bardet

 

Le Tour de France – Stage 19 Preview

Course:

As expected, yesterday saw little action from the riders currently seated at the top of the general classification, but fireworks are certain to be ignited on today’s unique stage; tailor-made for combative riding. The final two days in the mountains at this year’s Tour de France are unique for their short distances and large amount of testing climbing squeezed into such a limited period of racing. This type of stage structure is meant to instigate fighting amongst the favourites throughout the day, as the need to stay fresh is minimised by the lesser total distance, aiming for a battle royale to decide the maillot jaune’s owner come the podium in Paris.

Despite Chris Froome currently leading the race by more than three minutes, he and Team Sky are sure to be unsettled by the prospect of a day which will encourage his rivals to lay everything down ahead of tomorrow’s ride to Alpe d’Huez. Beginning in yesterday’s finish of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, the riders will only have to cover 138km to the finish of La Toussuire; a journey encompassing a HC climb, two Category 1 climbs and one Category 2 ascent. As soon as the peloton begin rolling out from the day’s start, it is immediately an upwards gradient which faces them, opening with the 15.4km long Categroy 1 Col du Chaussy (avg 6.3%).

A familiarly Alpine technical descent then follows down from the summit, lasting 15km and placing the riders back on level ground for 25km, this includes the relatively easy intermediate sprint after 42km. By around 60km worth of riding, the peloton will have the realisation that not a single passage of flat road now remains from here to the finish atop La Toussuire. The bulk amount of climbing starting as they begin ascending the HC Category Col de la Croix de Fer, a brutal challenge lasting 22.4km which averages a deceptive 6.9% gradient. Misleading, as it fails to hint at the 8km run of 9% – 10% gradients which begin after approximately 12km of climbing have already been tackled by the riders. It eases near the top, but the damage will have already been inflicted by this point, offering us an insight as to who looks strong and which favourites appears isolated already.

Off the Col de la Croix de Fer comes another technical descent, but one which interrupted by the day’s sole Category 2 climb, the Col du Mollard. Lasting for only 5.7km and averaging a 6.8% gradient, it is situated here to upset the rhythm and interrupt the possibility of ample recover as they drop back down into the valley ahead of the day’s final climb. From the top of the Col du Mollard, only 35km remain to decide the outcome of this crucial Stage 19 battle for the yellow jersey; nearly half of which is yet more descending.

The 119km marker signals the start of the climb to the line, the Category 1 La Toussuire placed to act as the backdrop to a fierce battle between the general classification frontrunners. A total of 18km hauls the riders up to the ski resort atop the climb, averaging 6.1% from bottom to top and is not immensely difficult once the harder opening 4km (6% – 9%) have been completed. However, in context of what has preceded it on the day, it is sure to see many riders crack under the mounting fatigue of an intensely explosive race to La Toussuire; even with an easing finale few kilometres at the top.

 

 

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Contenders:

Movistar have to roll the dice here, as waiting until tomorrow’s ascent of Alpe d’Huez is unlikely to inflict big enough damage to see Chris Froome lose his lead on one climb. They currently have two riders sitting second and third on the general classification, but this is a curse as much as it is a blessing for the Spanish team. Though with Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde a potent pairing to disrupt Chris Froome’s lead, those within the team will have qualms about investing too heavily in attacking Froome and seeing Valverde crack as a consequence with a strong Geraint Thomas poised to swoop onto the podium late into this Tour de France. Tactical headaches are plentiful throughout the peloton on a day which could see as much chasing from those attempting to cement top ten placings, as much as the battle for the maillot jaune itself, though Movistar are sure to have the hardest time deciding their strategy out of everyone on Stage 19.

Having attacked Chris Froome in small doses thus far, many are expecting Nairo Quintana to give Stage 19 both barrels and put everything down on the ride to La Toussuire in an attempt to finally break Froome’s stranglehold upon the yellow jersey. The Colombian is clearly in great form and there is a feeling that we have not really seen him attack with a 100% intent so far, marking him out as the biggest threat to the current yellow jersey owner. Quintana may wait until the final climb to attack hard, but will need to make the most of the tougher gradients, as the easing summit will only go to favour the faster finishing Chris Froome on such inclines. There is a chance that the Movistar leader might even attempt to attack long range, laying down a marker on the Col de la Croix de Fer in an attempt to find allies in Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador to really force Team Sky into a tactical nightmare.

On recent evidence, Chris Froome is the best climber at this race so far, but he is notorious for ailing somewhat as a Grand Tour approaches its final days in the mountains. Not only this, but his team has not been firing on all cylinders as of late, with Geraint Thomas often the only man left to protect him late on in the race. Today’s ascents do not suit Froome as well as they do his rivals, making it likely he will ship some time if he is not on the wheel of Nairo Quintana in the final 5km to La Toussuire. However, if he is still in touch with his rivals as they duck under the 5km to go banner, he will be the favourite to win the stage on a softer gradient which allows him to spin up to speed and beat those around him.

Movistar will be eager to cement Alejandro Valverde‘s position on the podium after yesterday’s stage saw him wobble and display the first significant signs of the 35 year old Spanish Champion cracking. Their worries will be justified as the long and grinding ascents of Stage 19 will not favour Valverde at all, possibly tipping him over the brink and conceding his podium place with only Alpe d’Huez available to save it. Valverde could try to anticipate this and join an early breakaway to cushion him to the battle behind, he is a talented descender and could lean on this to establish a lead; even if this fails he will act as a stepping stone for Quintana should his teammate catch him. If the tempo or fighting is not as intense as expected, possibly due to torrential downpours during the day, then Valverde has a chance of being in the lead group approaching La Toussuire where he would be favourite to win any such sprint for the line.

Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali enter the day with the need to save their race after disappointing showings which scuppered their chances before the real battle and even been ignited. The former could be tempted to launch a long-range attack off the Col de la Croix de Fer, something which he has utilised before in such situations in an attempt to recoup his losses late in a Grand Tour. The Italian Nibali is able to employ exactly the same attack, knowing he will be allowed to join a breakaway group given his current placing and is strong on a day consisting of so much descending; though his climbing form has not been consistent.

The battle for the Polka Dot Jersey is now the most hotly contested battle at this year’s Tour de France, a factor which should lure Joaquim RodrigeuzRomain BardetRafa Majka and Jakub Fuglsang into a level of action as the biggest names present in the fight for that competition. In a breakaway, the likes of Pierre RollandRigoberto UranDan MartinSteven Kruijswijk and Thibaut Pinot are just some of the strongest riders left to drive a break right the way to the line.

Outcome:

Such a short stage is bound to instigate an intense and widespread battle to gain a foothold in the day’s breakaway, of which could comprise a large array of riders including those desperate to save their general classification places such as Alejandro Valverde or Alberto Contador. Regardless, the big showdown should be between Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome, but where that fight shall occur could vary considerably. The Colombian is the favourite to win here, but if he has not shifted Froome ahead of the final kilometres to La Toussuire, then the Sky captain as a strong chance of taking another summit victory.

1st Nairo Quintana 2nd Chris Froome 3rd Romain Bardet

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Le Tour de France – Stage 18 Preview

Course:

With one Alpine stage under their belt already, the peloton are offered no respite as they are sent immediately into another mountainous stage encompassing seven categorised climb throughout the day. Despite its broad range of uphill challenges, the general classification favourites are likely to remain relatively sedate due to a finale which will not be decide upon a summit finish.

Stage 18 takes the riders on an 186.5km journey from the familiar town of Gap, to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne which is nestled within an Alpine valley like a Swiss chocolate box village. The longest of these remaining days in the mountains should be decided by a breakaway or late move which strikes out for glory if everything is back together late on in the race. From the off it is an upwards affair, the opening slopes of the Category 2 Col Bayard appear immediately from exiting Gap and cover a total of 6.3km worth of climbing at an average gradient of 7%. A tough way to open the account for the day and something which could send a fair amount of riders out the back straight away.

The terrain lessens in severity for a while after this, approaching the first of three consecutive Category 3 climbs in the space of 35km of racing. First comes Rampe du Motty (2.3km, avg 8.3%), then the Cote de la Mure (2.7km, avg 7.5%) and finally the Col de Malissol (2km, avg 8.7%). This run of three climbs starts with a gradual drop down in altitude before finishing by placing the riders above the altitude of the day’s opening Category 2 climb by 70.5km. All of these ascents are actually rather steep and will contribute to forming a large grupetto earlier than we have seen on the preceding mountain stages this year.

The second of the day’s three Category 2 climbs then follows in the shape of the Col de la Morte, a similarly short affair at 3.1km, it is still demanding given the average gradient of 8.4%. From the climb’s summit at 85km, a 15km descent drops the riders down into the valley once again rapidly, tackling a rather difficult intermediate sprint some kilometres later. Rising steadily onwards, the road builds in severity as it becomes evident to the riders that they have turned onto the opening slopes of the day’s main attraction; the Col du Glandon. This HC climb is certainly a beast, 21.7km in total length and averaging a misleading average of 5.1% due to the presence of two considerably easier sections which drop downwards during the climb. It will crack the legs primarily due to its irregular nature, providing little opportunity to find a rhythm with the gradients fluctuating regularly from 8% to 10% throughout the climb; remaining close to 9% in the final kilometre to the summit.

Having completed the Col du Glandon, less than 40km will then remain to their finishing location of Saint-Jean-De-Maurienne, a large part of which is formed by the subsequent descent from the summit. The peloton will reach level ground again briefly with 20km left to race, but soon begin building skywards again as they approach the brutal Lacets de Montvernier; a 3.4km climb which bolsters 18 hairpin bends and an average of 8.2% gradient. The ascent is relentless, which could be considered a blessing by some, allowing riders to settle into a rhythm as they try to hoist themselves to the top as quickly as possible.

Just 10km will then be left as they tip over the summit, a descent which traces its way through several tight hairpin bends and hits a small incline to the line in the concluding kilometres.

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Contenders:

Another open day in the Alps offers up an unpredictable stage, though those who sit in around the best climbers at this year’s Tour de France are likely to feature on the doubleheader of Col du Glandon and Lacets de Montvernier. 

Pierre Rolland is still in the hunt for a stage win at this year’s tour and showed a great level of form during the earlier Pyrenean stages, but it is not clear whether he has maintained this form into the Alps. He has a good chance of making it into the successful break of the day and could benefit from the tough final climb which leads into the easier finale. The Frenchman is running out of days to find victory at his home tour and will surely view Stage 18 as one of the best remaining chances to do just that.

Romain Bardet is in a similar position and was a surprise to see performing so poorly on the previous day’s climbs, but later put this down to poor management of blood sugars. If he manages to avoid bonking today, then the Frenchman does stand a chance of winning, if allowed to go clear by others placed around the top ten on the general classification. With so much of Stage 18 built upon short, hard climbs and plenty of descending, Bardet has the talents to perform well enough on paper to contest the win.

Some were suggesting that Joaquim Rodriguez had started to falter since his earlier stage winning double, but the previous day proved that he has instead been actively recovering and tried to join the right move. It seems likely that he will try this once again on Stage 18, short climbs with harsh gradients being his favoured terrain, while Lacets de Montvernier is the sort of finale you would expect to see him strut his stuff upon.

Further French interest might be represented by Christophe Riblon, the AG2R rider appearing to be in good form currently and is eager to smuggle himself aboard a winning break at last. Stage 16 did not quite work out as well as Riblon had hoped, predominantly due to the presence of Peter Sagan and the Frenchman’s lack of tactical nous to attack before the descent.

Steven Kruijswijk is beginning to demonstrate fragments of the form which allowed him to shine so fiercely at the Giro d’Italia earlier in the year. If he finds a well functioning move which places him as the best climber, then he possesses a solid chance of winning Stage 18. However, he is certainly not on top form right now and could become exposed in a frantic finale with stronger climbers.

Considering the amount of mountains classification points available on the road to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, it seems likely that Jakub Fuglsang will be lured out and into action. He has tried to make it into a move for the last couple of days and will view today as a crucial stage if he wishes to keep any hope of walking away with the polka dots alive.

Another rider possibly tempted into action by the mountains classification is MTN-Qhubeka’s Serge Pauwels, he is having a great Tour de France heading into Stage 18 and knows that the polka dot jersey is still a feasible target. Should he manage to make it into a breakaway which contests the majority of today’s mountains without Joaquim Rodriguez or Jakub Fuglsang alongside him, then he should take the jersey off tour leader Chris Froome.

Both Adam Yates and Simon Yates are likely to be active during the day if feeling good; the twins having both circled the Alps as the best hunting ground for stage success. A big outsider for the day is Peter Sagan, who appears to be discovering new depths to his talents at the Tour de France, meaning he just cannot be excluded from pulling off an incredible win. The finale could click really well with his attributes, but the Col du Glandon will be the biggest test if he wishes to have a shot at winning here. Sagan is climbing better than ever before and if he paces it well, there is no reason he could not recoup any losses with another barnstorming descent.

Outcome:

1st Serge Pauwels 2nd Jakub Fuglsang 3rd Joaquim Rodriguez

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Le Tour de France – Stage 17 Preview

Course:

Though only yesterday, the rest day will seem a million years ago for many in the peloton on Stage 17 of 2015’s Le Tour de France; sending the riders headlong into an Alpine summit finish for their first day back in the saddle. Tasking them with an 161km long trip from the start in Digne-les-Bains to a summit finish upon the historic Pra Loup climb of the Alps. For those not so immersed in cycling folklore, the ascent of Pra Loup was the scene of a rare sight during the 1975 Tour de France; the dethroning of Eddy Merckx by Bernard Thévenet. If that in itself does not ring any bells, then perhaps the fact an almost identical route and finish was used during this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné will; Romain Bardet emerging victorious after attacking on Pra Loup’s preceding descent on that day.

Essentially, it is safe to say that the peloton will be plenty well versed enough to anticipate what exactly awaits them on this first day back in the moutains, the favourite poised to ignite their last chance efforts to force Chris Froome out of the maillot jaune before Paris. The day’s account is opened by the Category 3 Col de Leques (6km, avg 5.3%) which tops out at the 40km marker and serves as a moderate warmup ahead of Stage 17’s schedule. A further 27km down the road comes the summit of the second of the day’s climbs, the Category 3 Col de Toutes Aures, one hundred meters longer than its predecessor but offering an easier gradient of 3.1% to be conquered.

A brief descent follows on from here and places the riders at the base of the Category 2 Col de la Colle-Saint-Michel, a much longer climb at 11km and averaging 5.2% from start to finish. The summit of this climb will come just before the century mark at 96km of riding, running immediately into another brief downhill section. Stage 17’s intermediate sprint appears slightly further down the road after 111km of racing and is bound to see Peter Sagan mixing it up again; if the break have not swept up all the points before the Slovak passes through. Onwards from this brief competition, the road segues straight into the ascent of the day’s solitary Category 1 climb; the Col d’Allos. This 14km ascent will soon begin to offer us up an indication of who is in good form during the day’s ride to Pra Loup, though billed as 5.5% on paper for the entirety, it is the testing 6km run to the summit which fluctuates between 6% and 8.5% which will be the battle until they drop down the other side.

From its summit, a little over 20km will separate the peloton from the summit finish of Stage 17, Pra Loup sure to be dialling up the anxiety as they drop down to its opening slopes. If the impending rush to win the was not enough to add fuel to the fires of stress, the descent which connects the two final climbs is also technically demanding and is sure to act as a launchpad for a gifted climber to gather an advantage on the downhill before scaling the gradients to Pra Loup. Given that its length is only 6.2km in total, some may consider the anticipated drama to occur here to be over exaggerated, but there is sure to be enough action to bring the frontrunners to the fore and see some serious defending of the yellow jersey by Chris Froome. The gradients here are stated to average a constant 6.5%, though its final kilometre is set to make for some interesting viewing as it spikes upwards to 8.5%. A short finishing straight will decide the day, only 80m in fact, meaning there is little imperative for somebody who rolls well on the flat to make the cut upon the final climb unlike Stage 14.

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Contenders:

The opening Alpine salvo of 2015’s Tour de France is sure to lure some riders out who began this race in Utrecht with well founded ambitions of featuring towards the pointy end of this year’s general classification, but now find themselves separated by around ten minutes to current leader Chris Froome. However, despite many perceiving a gradual demise of Team Sky’s strength due to the abandonment of Peter Kennaugh and the ailing form of Richie Porte, Wout Poels and Nicolas Roche; Chris Froome might decide to strike out once again and demonstrate his dominance. Though not wishing to jinx him, there is a great misconception about Froome’s ability to descend, a total absence of evidence to suggest he cannot keep pace with the likes of Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali. Assuming he stays within 15 seconds of a rider such as Valverde heading into the opening sections of Pra Loup. There is little to argue against Froome taking yet another summit finish victory at Le Tour de France.

As stated above, Alejandro Valverde appears to be a likely contender to attack on the final descent and try to gain an advantage to his rivals before turning onto Pra Loup. The descent is technical, meaning Froome may decided to back down on the pace somewhat in pursuite of Valverde, allowing the Spainard to start the ascent to home solo; a climb which suits his attributes well given its distance and gradients. If away late into the stage, Froome will not wish to work too hard to bring him back, as their is a strong chance of Nairo Quintana then immediately counter-attacking as soon as his teammate is reeled back in.

AG2R will be confident of featuring in some form during the finale of Stage 17 and Romain Bardet should be confident of animating the race given his recent winning performance on almost the exact same course during this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné. The young Frenchman appears to be finding his legs at last and is likely to invest his efforts heavily during this Alpine conclusion of the tour after his general classification hopes failed to make it through the opening week. There is obviously the chance that his focus will instead be placed upon cementing his top ten general classification placing, as those sitting around him will not be particularly fond of seeing his bike vanish up the road during their ride down Col d’Allos.

Of those who entered his race has contenders for the overall win, Vincenzo Nibali is now the rider likey to be given the most freedom to attack on a stage such as this. Little needs to be said of the Italian’s prowess for descending, a talent which would set him up well if deciding to attack as soon as the summit of the Col d’Allos is reached. As little as thirty seconds could be enough of an advantage for Nibali to fend off his pursuers on Pra Loup, but it will be hard to pull out such time if the likes of Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde wish to keep him on a tight leash. Entering this final week, Nibali does look to have begun finding his climbing legs once again, but he will need a reasonable cushion to emerge victorious atop Pra Loup.

Nairo Quintana has the possibility to begin pulling back time from Chris Froome on Stage 17, the Col d’Allos and Pra Loup an enticing combination which could see the Colombian attack hard on both ascents. As mentioned earlier, Froome is beginning to appear isolated in the latter stages of these mountain days and has the potential to start creaking under the pressure of his Spanish speaking rivals. With teammate Alejandro Valverde equally well poised to attack Froome, the Movistar combination could finally strike gold if they play their cards right.

Though Romain Bardet’s win on a carbon copy stage at this year’s Crtéterium du Dauphiné was the main headline, eyebrows were slightly raised after Tejay Van Garderen’s performance saw him take four seconds out of his rival Chris Froome. Though it is unlikely to see the American fighting for the win here, it should be monitored as to how well he copes with his general classification rivals attack; possibly making a move himself yet again to take a handful of seconds.

Two noteworthy riders currently placed in the top ten overall are Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema, who could contribute a surprising amount of energy into pursing a rider such as Vincenzo Nibali; stopping him from leapfrogging Gesink or pulling away from Mollema. On the road, both are finding their climbing legs at last and are often dangerously underrated on a stage finish such as this. Both have the ability to lay down high tempo attacks, but it is Mollema who stands out as the most likely to attempt such a move in the final kilometres in order to gain time on the general classification.

Of course, a breakaway winning on Stage 17 remains a strong possibility, especially if the dynamic of strength and size is struck spot on when going clear. Simon Yates has been ill during Le Tour, but stated that his ambitions were to rest and actively recover as best as possible, before then coming to the fore on his favoured Alpine climbs. If Romain Bardet fails for AG2R on today’s stage, Alexis Vuillermoz will be waiting in the wings to take over and lead the charge in either a breakaway or elite group of contenders which reaches Pra Loup first. He was only 1:37 down on Bardet during that Dauphiné finish this year and has already demonstrated his form by winning on Stage 8. Yet further French hopes can be flown by Pierre Rolland, who is in good condition, but is not always best positioned to follow the right moves. Having finished within a minute of Bardet on Pra Loup at the Dauphiné, he must feel confident of mounting a serious charge once again on Stage 17’s same finale. The South-African Louis Meintjes is well worth a mention on a day such as this, he has looked strong throughout the mountains for the most part so far and placed 6th (50″ down) when Bardet took the Pra Loup win last month.

Others worth keeping an eye on are Daniel MartinRafael VallsMathias FrankJoaquim RodriguezWilco Kelderman, Ryder Hesjedal and Andrew Talansky.

Outcome:

Breakaway: 1st Romain Bardet 2nd Louis Meintjes 3rd Simon Yates

GC Riders: 1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Chris Froome 3rd Bauke Mollema

 

 

Le-Tour-de-France-2015-Stage-16-Preview-

Le Tour de France – Stage 16 Preview

Course:

The Alps are weighing heavy on the minds of those with general classification hopes by now, but their focus will have to remain in the present as they are demanded to navigate a stressful Stage 16 which might see some unexpected moves amongst the top riders. One of the longer stages at this year’s Tour de France, a 201km trip from Bourg de Péage to the ever present tour feature of Gap, which forms a constant rise from start to finish.

Though an uphill drag from the off, it is not until 120km have passed until the first categorised ascent of the day begins to ratchet skywards. The Category 2 Col de Cabre is 9.1km in length and is ridden at an average gradient of 4.6%, followed by a relatively short descent which places the riders back on the rising conveyor belt to Gap. Next on the agenda comes the famous Col de Manse, another Category 2 climb which is perhaps more famous for its following descent than its 8.9km of rising roads, all of which maintains an average of 5.6%. From here only 12km separates the frontrunners from the finale in Gap, yet almost the entire day’s stresses and anxieties are likely to be squeezed into this dramatic drop down off the Col de Manse.

Not only is it a rapid affair, but the technical nature of the descent will be extremely demanding for anyone trying to form the day’s winning move. Attributes of which to find a safe passage and slip away from the peloton’s chase are only present in a handful of gifted descenders present at this year’s Tour de France. Regardless of who is leading by this point of Stage 16, they will experience the road flatten out somewhat (though still downwards) with only 3km left to race. From here a couple of roundabouts are present during the run to home, exiting onto the 1.3km long finishing straight into Gap.

 

 

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Contenders:

Truly an open stage with a raft of permutations which could see anything from a solo move to a general classification sparring session decide the outcome in Gap. A breakaway remains the most likely scenario to prove the day’s winner, likely to be a move which has been out front all day, fragmenting towards the finale as infighting begins to spread through the ranks.

AG2R have a chance of being well represented in any of the day’s crucial moves with Jan BakelantsRomain Bardet and Alexis Vuillermoz all poised make their presence here worthwhile at 2015’s Le Tour. The French pairing of Bardet and Vuillermoz are certainly the more gifted climbers present in the afore mentioned triumvirate and Bardet has already finished third twice through breakaways this year, but it is Bakelants who is likely to be the best man to back from the native outfit. With his penchant for breakaway moves and the guile to make the most of technical terrain, his current form in the mountains looks to be the cherry on the cake which makes him a contender here.

Laurens Ten Dam and Steven Kruijswijk are both capable of flying the Dutch flag amongst the day’s breakaway, especially given the constant upwards drag from the very start. Ten Dam has not quite been as strong as expected, but should still function well in a move which takes Stage 16 right the way to the line. The form of Kruijswijk at this year’s Giro d’Italia was very impressive as he pursued the mountains classification, but the same form as been somewhat absent thus far at Le Tour, though remains a strong man to have in any break here.

One man who is certain to ignite his campaign for a stage win during the third and final week of the race is the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal; a rider with a knack for finding victory late in a Grand Tour. He has started to animate the race as of late and will be aware of how well he went on a similar stage to Gap in 2011 where he finished third. His climbing is solid right now, though not his best, while his handy skill for descending being the real standout talent to mark him as a contender on Stage 16.

MTN-Qhubeka have blown everyone’s expectations of them at this tour firmly out of the water with a stage win and a stint in the Polka Dot Jersey thus far, but their glory could still extend further. Evidently one of the most in form climbers right now after making the breakaway on some testing days is their Belgian climber Serge Pauwels. Should he decide to join any moves on the day, it is hard to picture many non-general classification contenders riding better than him of the day’s two ascents. It is hard to say how he will cope with the descent down to Gap, but could stand a chance of wining if he maintains a cool head throughout the testing run to home.

Of those who standout with obvious prowess for attacking on fast and technical descents such as the one which follows on from the Col de Manse include Vincenzo NibaliTony Gallopin and Michal Kwiatkowski. The Italian Nibali is known for his ability to descend and is likely to apply some pressure onto his rivals (especially Chris Froome) by attacking downhill and could be allowed to go given his current placing on the general classification. His race has not gone well so far and he could in fact aim to save his tour by attempting to win Stage 16 if the dynamic towards the end of the day is beneficial. Gallopin possesses a fantastic blend of skills which could single him out as favourite should the stage win be decided by a group of general classification leaders. The Frenchman is climbing very well right now, is notorious for reaping the rewards of attacking on a descent and is no slouch should he have to sprint for the win. Kwiatkowski has been attempting stage winning moves on several occasions in the last week, showing the rainbow bands with pride and trying to do them justice with a stage win at the year’s biggest race. This might have left him a little fatigued for today, though some would argue that these attacks have in fact been his attempt to find his form as he is not perceived to be firing on all cylinders right now. He displayed his natural flair for descending earlier in the year at Paris-Nice and can afford to take the final climb at his own pace as he is bound to recoup any losses on a conclusion which suits his abilities well.

There is no doubt that Rigoberto Uran’s once well poised placing on the general classification has come crashing down upon him, now leaving him with only stage wins to resurrect his Tour de France. Having already featured in a significant move already, it seems likely that the Colombian will fancy his chances on a stage which strikes a nice balance between climbing and descending, before possibly ending in a reduced sprint amongst climbers; of which he would be a favourite to win.

Another rider wishing to save his Tour de France was originally France’s best shot at the yellow jersey this year, Thibaut Pinot. There is little doubt as to Pinot now finding his way into the sort of climbing form we are more accustomed to seeing from him and he will have a strong focus upon taking a win in his homeland’s Alpine region. The obvious hangup when backing Pinot for the day is the circus which surrounds his supposed inability to descend, much of which emanates from a fear of high speed crashes.

Another member who currently sits within the top ten overall is Alejandro Valverde despite supposedly here to back his leader Nairo Quintana 100%. Putting his team playing abilities to one side for the moment, Valverde currently appears very strong in the climbs and bolsters a renowned ability to finish off a day like this with his rapid sprint. Given his talents at descending, there is a chance he will be employed as a way of applying pressure to Chris Froome, attacking on the downhill and forcing the Brit to give chase. If a group of general classification riders does come to the line first and decide the win, Valverde is an obvious choice to emerge victorious in Gap.

Outcome:

Breakaway: 1st Michal Kwiatkowski 2nd Serge Pauwels 3rd Tony Gallopin

GC Riders: 1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Vincenzo Nibali 3rd Rigoberto Uran

 

Le-Tour-de-France-2015-Stage-15-Preview-

Le Tour de France – Stage 15 Preview

Course:

Stage 15 might offer up a rare treat for some of the riders in the peloton, a bunch kick possibly on the cards for the fast finishing sprinters, having had to endure a Pyrenean onslaught and several summit finishes thus far. The final day’s ride around the Champs Élysées considered the only nailed on gallop remaining for Mark Cavendish et al.

A 183km course takes the peloton from yesterday’s finish in Mende to the town of Valence, consisting of an opening 73km of upwards terrain encompassing two categorised climbs and a long descent down to the intermediate sprint; before a Category 2 ascent stands between the sprinters and their possible bunch kick.

Opening with close to 20km of uphill, some will be feeling the pain right from the off after the preceding fourteen days in the saddle; notching up the Category 3 Côte de Badaroux (4.6km, avg 5.1%) after 9.5km. After this the road lulls somewhat before entering onto the Category 4 pairing of the Col du Bez  (2.6km, avg 4.4%) and Col de la Croix de Bauzon (1.3km avg 6.2%), dovetailing neatly together in less than 5km of riding. A long descent follows on from this doubleheader and does not really stop until after the intermediate sprint at 108km as the road tilts upwards ahead of the day’s biggest climb.

Col de l’Escrinet is a Category 2 ascent totalling 7.9km from bottom to top, averaging a grinding 5.8% gradient for its entirety. It is relatively constant throughout however and avoids fluctuating too wildly in regards to gradient, hopefully allowing the bunch to pace their way up to the top in order to stay fresh for any subsequent chase to the line. The descent down the other side of the climb lasts for around 25km and is likely to form the main tactical turning point of Stage 15. Any breakaway remaining by this point will need to be functioning extremely well to hold off the peloton and bolster enough numbers to maintain the pace to the finish; infighting upon the Col de l’Escrinet could spell disaster for any move’s chances.

A series of roundabouts comprise the final 4km and also includes a gentle rise which levels out totally as they approach the line; the dynamic between escapees and sprinter’s teams will make for intriguing viewing during the decisive run down the Col de l’Escrinet.

Le-Tour-de-France-2015-Stage-15-Preview-

Contenders:

Le Tour has a high chance of finally witnessing a victory by Peter Sagan thanks to the profile and nature of Stage 15’s run from Mende to Valence. He displayed his prowess once again in yesterday’s stage in joining the break and has the option to do the same today or stay hidden within the bunch in anticipation of a possible bunch kick. The moderately technical approach in the final 5km combined with the drag to the short finishing straight suits Sagan particularly well and he will be focused on featuring here. As ever, he will lack team support from Tinkoff-Saxo, but that has not stopped him from accumulating 322 points in the Green Jersey competition thus far.

Of similar talents and attributes is the German sprinter John Degenkolb, an underrated climber who should be able to cope with the ascents of the day and participate in any remaining bunch sprint. He should have a greater depth of support compared to that of Sagan and often benefits from a difficult day in the saddle which fatigues his rivals ahead of the finale. Other than a breakaway victory here, Degenkolb is most likely to be the man to put Sagan into second place yet again.

The light build of Bryan Coquard should aid the Frenchman greatly during the climb of Col de l’Escrinet and could be one of the freshest sprinters remaining come the end of day. With a short gallop to the line and a slight drag during the final 3km, Coquard could feature here despite a possible lack of support and a technical run in which might expose his positional weaknesses.

Greg Van Avermaet has options as ever to join a break or wait for the chance of a reduced sprint in Valence; though he is probably still on a high from his Stage 13 victory to worry a great deal. A hard race could see him rise to the top yet again, though a breakaway might be his best chance of stage honours once more at 2015’s Tour de France. Few riders will be eager to ride right the way to the line with Avermaet in such flying form, meaning his efforts to make the break could prove fruitless, but he remains a danger in any sprint contesting the win regardless.

It would be foolish to discount Mark Cavendish from featuring in the mix on Stage 15 simply due to the presence of the Col de l’Escrinet and its summit almost 60km from home. Muck like Degenkolb, his climbing skills are greatly underrated and he is possibly in fact the best climber from this race’s selection of pure sprinters. He usually manages the attrition rate reasonably well between the Alps and Paris, suggesting his form might be better here than expected. Etixx-QuickStep will not struggle to support the Brit should they believe he has what it takes to win today and that level of backing could prove decisive coming off the back of the Col de l’Escrinet.

A breakaway has a high chance of succeeding on the road to Valence, moves at this stage of Le Tour are often bolstered in size due to teams’ diminishing chances of making their presence here worthwhile and can benefit from a lack of chasing impetus behind due to fatigue. Sylvain ChavanelLieuwe Westra and Ramunas Navardauskas are three such riders who could place themselves within the breakaway, while also possessing the necessary expertise to finish the job at the end of the day.

Outcome:

1st Peter Sagan 2nd John Degenkolb 3rd Mark Cavendish

Outsider: Ramunas Navardauskas