Mark Cavendish ensured that he shall not be walking away from this year’s Tour de France empty-handed, when winning Stage 7 with a late burst from behind André Greipel, to take the stage and quell the mutterings concerning his form thus far. Sprinting later compared to that of his attempts on Stage 2 and Stage 5 allowed him to open up a gap to his rivals with the tarmac running out for those behind to react to, an interesting plan which we may see executed once again on the Champs Élysées by Etixx-QuickStep at the end of this grand tour. Before then, attention shall now focus upon a tricky day in the saddle which should force a strong blend of puncheurs and general classification contenders to duke it out for victory and limit any possible losses upon the tough Mûr de Bretagne finale which is the talking point of Stage 8. In 2011 on Stage 4, the same conclusion was constructed, one which saw a large group lead by Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador battle up the ascent; the Australian emerging victorious on the day and going on to stand atop the podium in Paris two weeks later.
It will be an 181.5km ride from the city of Rennes to the finish atop the Mûr de Bretagne, the peloton only having to negotiate one solitary categorised climb en route, but they will be kept on their toes by terrain which could favour a breakaway comprising the right mix of riders. The opening 90km or so should pose little in the way of problems for the peloton, this passage allowing the riders to spin up to speed ahead of a contrasting second half of racing. Just before the 100km marker comes the Category 4 Col du Mont Bel-Air, a 1.5km climb which demands the pack to battle over a gradient of 5.7% before the are allowed to drop downwards once again. From this point onwards, life could become slightly more troublesome, the terrain not levelling out at all despite their descent.
The day’s intermediate sprint comes at 108.5km and is one of the more demanding sprints which the likes of Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and André Greipel will have had to negotiate thus far in the tour. Battling against a gradient which reaches around 4%, it will make for interesting viewing as we gain an insight as to which of the quick men decides to invest the most into winning these extra points for the Green Jersey. After this challenge the terrain remains rolling, sending the peloton through the technical and narrow roads which are so synonymous with this part of France.
Despite being some way from the finish still, attention will be focused almost entirely upon the Mûr de Bretagne’s conclusion of Stage 8, anticipation building to guarantee themselves a clear run to the line for those wishing to contest the day’s victory. The Category 3 status afforded to the Mûr de Bretagne perhaps suggests an easier finale than expected, but this unlikely to be the case without the dynamic of the race altering greatly late on to subdue the peloton. Its average of 6.9% is stretched out over 2km, though the first 1km contains the more brutal gradients which are set to shell a majority of the peloton beyond contention for the win here. Opening with 500m set at an average of 10.1%, there is no doubt of the riders being well aware of when they strike upon the Mûr de Bretagne. The following 500m offer a marginal drop in gradient to 9.5%, though not many here will notice the difference while busying chew the stem in an attempt to stay with the favourites.
Any late breakaway attempt is bound to go within this opening kilometre of the Mûr de Bretagne, utilising the steep incline to gain a signifiant advantage in anticipation of the easier second half. The concluding kilometre decreases to 5.5% at first, tailing off yet further with 500m to a much more manageable 2.4%. Given that this is not technically a summit finish, the likelihood of a rider who is able to stay at the fore over the first kilometre, before gathering speed in the final 500m to sprint to the line is rather high. General classification riders have been forced to the top here before and it would be no surprise if somebody who has already lost time in pursuit of the overall decided it to be worthwhile endeavour to attack here and recoup a percentage of that time.
A breakaway has a solid chance of getting away and staying away to decide the outcome of Stage 8, though the gruelling Mûr de Bretagne finale can send any lead group backwards into the oncoming jaws of the peloton. Much of the home crowds attention will be centred upon Tony Gallopin and the possibility of him taking the maillot jaune from Team Sky, who are likely to be content to let possession slide for the meantime. The Frenchman is neatly placed third on the general classification as it stands and performed well on the Mur de Huy during Stage 3, against gradients which many did not expect him to appear so comfortable with. A great positive for him on Stage 8 is how the final 1km to 5oom from the line level out rapidly enough for him to recover and possibly utilise his potent sprint if required to tackle any remaining rivals; he could concede the stage victory if he believes the yellow jersey to be secured though. The fashion in which the Mûr de Bretagne begins demandingly so and then levels out ahead of the line is vaguely reminiscent of Amstel Gold and the Cauberg. This Spring saw Tony Gallopin finish sixth on that ascent this year and there is nothing to suggest he cannot demonstrate the same form in order to take yellow and possibly the stage win.
Should a lesser tempo be present amongst the peloton during the finale, allowing a larger group to form as a result late on, then Peter Sagan perhaps even has a chance of featuring here. The Slovak is bound to be the fastest of any group of which he is represented within judging by current sprint form, but a steady pace is really required in order for him to remain in contention. Tinkoff-Saxo show a great aversion to supporting him, despite the fact that the protection of leader Alberto Contador would segue nicely into helping Sagan in any stage’s finale right now; making it likely he will be solo once again here. If a larger bunch sprint does indeed decide Stage 8, then Peter Sagan will be the favourite if present with the front group.
Greg Van Avermaet appears to be in good condition, despite the limited sightings of him this far at this year’s Tour de France. Much like the Cauberg, this climb of the Mûr de Bretagne should suit his skills quite nicely, the combination of initial ascent merging into a flatter conclusion ticking all the right boxes for the Belgian. Avermaet has the strength to stick the pace during the opening 1km and will look to diminish any deficit over the final kilometre to the line, after which his sprinting prowess would mark him out as a real contender amongst any group deciding the win. It remains to be seen as to how aggressive he will be allowed to ride considering how well placed his leader Tejay Van Garderen currently is on the general classification, but he remains a danger-man whatever the situation at BMC.
Another similarly styled puncheur who we have not seen a great deal of during the opening week is Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard turning in a disappointing performance on his favourite climb (the Mur de Huy) during Stage 3’s conclusion, just missing out on taking a top ten position when finishing 11th on the day. On paper today’s run to home should appear incredibly inviting to him, the gradients allowing him to prosper without having to battle too intensley, before opening out onto the final 500m which should see Valverde spin up a difficult pace to match in any possible sprint. Valverde is certainly no unknown quantity, but his current form is, so it is hard to back him convincingly right now; he is a favourite if on form however.
Garmin-Cannondale are unlikely to invest a great deal into the chase with the team trial looming large after having seen key ‘engine’ Jack Bauer depart from the race. However, they do possess a great card to play late on in the shape of Irishman Dan Martin, a rider with a real kick on such gradients who copes well as such ascents flatten out onto their finishing straight. His victories at Liége-Bastogne-Liége and Giro Lombardia demonstrate his blend of climbing prowess and turn of pace once the road’s gradient lessens considerably for example. As ever, he has been dogged by bad luck and his general classification hopes have taken a battering as a consequence, but the form is clear to see for even the causal fan. If there is still everything to play for as he reaches the base of the climb, Dan Martin has a real chance of taking his second career win at Le Tour on Stage 8.
Etixx-QuickStep are having a great time of it so far at 2015’s Tour de France, winning three stages so far and having also enjoyed ownership of the yellow jersey before Tony Martin’s unfortunate abandonment. Though it is likely they will consider this to be sufficient thus far, they do have an intriguing option in Rigoberto Uran for Stage 8’s finishing atop the Mûr de Bretagne. Back in 2011 when the tour last finished here, the Colombian secured an impressive fourth place amongst general classification company, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador and Alexandre Vinokourov being those immediately ahead of him on the day. Uran is only 34″ seconds away from the yellow jersey as it stands and the course here does suit him particularly well, the gradient within his performance range and finishing on a flatter section would would allow him to demonstrate his surprisingly good sprint finish. Form on the same finish usually counts for something in cycling, so Uran has to be considered, but the dynamics at Etixx-QuickStep are too difficult to predict and they might prefer to keep him fresh for the team time trial and opening Pyrenean climbs.
Lampre-Merida will decide on the day as to the condition of Rui Costa who has suffered already with injuries during the chaotic opening week. He has stated publicly on his blog that his left knee is the current issue, but is certain to make the most of this well suiting finale if his body obliges to contest the win. Much like the Cauberg, Rui Costa has what it takes to stick the pace with the frontrunners on a good day and is known for a sprint finish which shatters the hopes of those on his tail. Classed as a dark horse for the win, it would be no shock to see him in the shake up for the stage if on a good day.
It is worth considering how little impetus might be present to pursue a breakaway when given how Sky will look to shift the pressure of the yellow jersey to another, as well as other squads lacking the resources to compete in a hectic finale through personnel choice or recent injuries. With that in mind, an entire raft of possible contenders enter into the mix: Alexis Vuillermoz, Daniel Navarro, Julien Simon and Daniel Teklehaimanot just several capable of joining the day’s winning breakaway.
Possibly the most open day so far at Le Tour, Stage 8 will see some anxious looks between the general classification riders late on, but the victory should be decided by a group of 10 – 20 riders or a solo move which succeeds after attacking on the opening kilometre of the Mûr de Bretagne. Though we have not necessarily seen much of him due to varied misfortunes, Dan Martin suits this finale particularly well and is confident of making the most of his great condition right now if he can avoid yet further bad luck. The man most likely to secure temporary ownership of the maillot jaune is France’s own Tony Gallopin, his combination of climbing prowess and sprint speed making him a danger either solo or as part of a break. Greg Van Avermaet, Rui Costa and Alejandro Valverde could all lay claim to the victory here normally, but are currently either injured/lacking form/or under team orders heading into Stage 8. Regardless of this, the trio will be watched closely, all three known for their ability to perform on such terrain with great effect. Of the general classification riders, Rigoberto Uran is perhaps the most suited to this finale given his previous form here and has the potential to reclaim the yellow jersey for his team Etixx-QuickStep if he seizes the opportunity to do just that. From a break deciding the outcome, Alexis Vuillermoz is an interesting option who put in a fantastic showing on Stage 3 and has begun to grow as a specialist upon these Ardennes styled finales.
1st Dan Martin 2nd Tony Gallopin 3rd Rui Costa
Outsider: Rigoberto Uran