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