After forecasting another correct outcome at this year’s Tour de France to make it eight wins from sixteen stages thus far for Spokenforks, life gets trickier to predict as the peloton head into a pair of gruelling mountain stages. The first is a 183km passage from La Mure to Serre Chevalier, featuring three of the most historic ascents from Tour de France history and ending with a fierce descent into the finish line. Beginning almost immediately uphill for the second day in a row, the riders start by pedalling towards the summit of the Category 2 Col d’Ormon, something of a warm up during its 5.1km duration which could soon see some struggle on its average gradient of 6.7%. A short drop back downhill will send the pack racing through the day’s intermediate sprint point, leaving them at the foot of the HC Col de la Croix de Fer, an imposing 24km long climb which continually breaks rhythm. This will make it hard for some to pace it correctly, especially if AG2R La Mondiale choose to attack Chris Froome once again, aiming to reduce his supporting riders ahead of the next two ascents.
Having survived the draining Col de la Croix de Fer and navigated safely back into the valley, the frontrunners will then be required to begin the Category 1 Col du Télégraphe. Shorter at 11.9km from top to bottom than its predecessor, though with a steeper average gradient of 7.1%, its a relatively even climb which offers extremely brief respite ahead of the concluding climb of Stage 17. The Col du Galibier is a HC challenge, opening with slopes manageable enough to lure riders anxiously waiting to attack into making a mistake, as it only gets tougher as the bunch near the summit; 17.7km long in total and an average of 6.9%. A long downhill leads all the way into Serre Chevalier, technical enough to turn the screw on rivals to begin with, though it is likely that gaps will begin to close once the descent becomes easier nearer town. A subtle drag leads up to the finish line, so it may prove ideal territory for a puncheur or even a general classification favourite to take the win.
Mikel Landa would normally be a name well worth considering for victory today, but with duties to his Team Sky leader keeping him on a tight leash, it is unlikely that the Basque rider will be allowed to attack and distance his captain in the process. He is clearly in fantastic form at the moment and evidently believes he is capable of winning the overall competition, expressing his disinterest at the potential of returning to another grand tour tethered to Chris Froome. The ascent of the Col du Galibier looks perfect for him to spring an attack from, sailing away downhill and potentially rolling any fellow escapees in a dash for the line. Should Chris Froome prove to have another bad day in the mountains; will Team Sky choose to send Mikel Landa back to help him and risk losing two riders on the general classification, or potentially give the talented lieutenant a chance to win this year’s Tour de France.
Romain Bardet will be on what many consider to be home soil for today and tomorrow, assessing how best he and his AG2R La Mondiale teammates can deal damage to Chris Froome before the individual time trial in Marseille. The Frenchman possesses the only team with the firepower capable of isolating the current maillot jaune and will be acutely aware that risking everything on tomorrow’s summit finish atop the Col d’Izoard could prove a miscalculation. The double header of Col du Télégraphe into Col du Galibier is where Bardet is most likely to make his move, attacking over the final summit and forcing a potentially lone Chris Froome to chase him down the concluding ascent. A stronger rise to the line would have made victory more likely, but if he times his offensive manoeuvres perfectly, then Bardet may well be on course for stage honours and a yellow jersey.
Dan Martin unexpectedly lost time in the crosswinds yesterday, despite finding himself well placed alongside giants Alexander Kristoff and André Greipel, compounded by the fact his Quick – Step teammates failed to live up to expectations as masters of such conditions. With their focus seemingly upon an unrealistic win for Marcel Kittel, the Irishman is now forced on the attack and will be appreciative of the stage which has been offered to him. With its long downhill run into the finish and the probability of him being the fastest present in an elite group of riders, this is a brilliant chance for Martin to collect a richly deserved stage win at this year’s race. However, the greatest concern is whether he can survive the onslaught of major climbs, especially if Romain Bardet signals his men to light the race up once again. Regardless, Martin seemed confident of returning to full fitness after his crash as the race enters its final week and will view this as an all or nothing day in the saddle.
Rigoberto Uran faces the greatest test of his surprise tilt at the yellow jersey during these next two days, as we await to discover how great a threat the Colombian may prove as the race approaches the crucial time trial in Marseille. Since his consecutive runner-up placings at the Giro d’Italia a few years ago, Uran has never appeared to be as strong as he once was in grand tours, thus this small renaissance of a much liked member of the peloton has the makings of banana skin for Chris Froome. Regardless, for now he must focus upon the task of Stage 17, one which suits his attributes well enough to hint at another potential stage win. Much like Dan Martin, his best hope is to stick within part of a small group of elite riders and hope to beat them all with the sort of acceleration which snatched victory by the millimetre on Stage 9.
Warren Barguil looks assured of standing atop the podium in Paris with the polka dot jersey upon his shoulders, yet he could still be lured out in pursuit another stage win today. With so many points on offer, Barguil could choose to hammer home his advantage by joining the early move of the day and aim to stay at the front of affairs right the way into Serre Chevalier. His form as been blistering during the race thus far, contributing to the goals of Michael Matthews equally as he has worked in pursuit of his own campaign in the mountains. The Frenchman may also instead wish to invest one final effort into a potential victory atop the Col d’Izoard tomorrow, though there is little to suggest he cannot win today if he chooses to attack.
Others who may hope to succeed from the early breakaway or attack over the summit of the final climb are Simon Yates, Alberto Contador, Tony Gallopin, Primoz Roglic and Thomas De Gendt.
1st Romain Bardet 2nd Warren Barguil 3rd Mikel Landa