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.
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 Bakelants, Romain 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 Nibali, Tony 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.
Breakaway: 1st Michal Kwiatkowski 2nd Serge Pauwels 3rd Tony Gallopin
GC Riders: 1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Vincenzo Nibali 3rd Rigoberto Uran