Those wishing to sustain a serious campaign upon the general classification will need to ignite their ambitions with serious determination on Stage 9’s gruelling course. Starting in Nantua, the day begins immediately uphill and completes two categorised climbs within the first 11km of racing. A total of 181.5km will be traversed en route to Chambéry and a brutal trio of HC climbs will provide the first true insight as to who is struggling to find their best in the mountains this year.
First of the three major ascents to be ridden is the HC Col de la Biche, a 10.5km long climb which sustains a draining 9% average gradient, though features steeper sections along the way. The subsequent descent offers no true recovery opportunity, leading immediately to the base of the HC Grand Colombier, a historic feature of Le Tour de France for many years, the riders will be familiar with its average gradient of 9.9% and total 8.5km distance. A rapid descent then places the bunch back down into the valley, taking in the day’s intermediate sprint and the Category 4 Côte de Jongieux, before the showdown on the day’s concluding climb.
Mont du Chat is a particularly brutal HC challenge, lasting for 8.7km and tasking the peloton with ascending a mind numbing average gradient of 10.3%; ramps of 15% are also present on the way to the summit. There is no chance of hiding poor form on Stage 9 after such attritional climbing, as even the descent from the final climb of the day is an equalling gruelling affair, with tight hairpin bends being negotiated through dense tree lines. The frontrunners at the end of it all will have approximately 14km to stay at the head of affairs in order to contest the win in Chambéry at the end of the day.
Romain Bardet knows that he will have to make these outrageously tough days in the mountains count for something early on at this year’s Tour de France, as having to close any substantial lead which Chris Froome may establish heading into the first rest day will be the start of a huge challenge. There is a feeling amongst the riders that Froome is perhaps not as strong as expected in this opening week, hoping instead to peak for the final run of Pyrenean stages instead. This should be an opportunity too great to resist if true and Romain Bardet is the best equipped rider to take advantage of it. He enjoys these steep climbs, but most crucially, is not afraid of descending at eye watering speeds in pursuit of victory. If he attacks over the top of the Mont du Chat, then he could end up soloing all the way to victory in Chambéry.
Dan Martin will expect to be one of the fastest riders present in an elite group which forms as a result of the day’s final climb. Without the eternal thorn in the Irishman’s side at the race now (Alejandro Valverde), he can focus on saving himself for the final run into the finish line, where a strong sprinting performance from him is unlikely to be matched by those who have also made the cut. However, that in itself is the greatest issue for Martin, as an explosive race may jettison him before the final ascent due to the ferocity of the general classification battle.
Fabio Aru cannot be ignored on a stage like today’s, the reigning Italian road race champion having a real penchant for these horrendously steep climbs and could choose to combine them with his aggressive style of racing in order to put immense pressure on the likes of Chris Froome and Richie Porte. He seems the one most likely to not stick to the generally agreed race plan amongst the major names, potentially going on the offensive earlier than many anticipate to see who is most interested in following.
Thibaut Pinot should prove an enthusiastic presence on Stage 9, as the Frenchman will need a strong showing if he is to have a realistic chance of obtaining the polka dot jersey or a stage win at this year’s race. Having arrived off the back of a tough Giro d’Italia, his form has perhaps dipped, though Pinot has never raced particularly strongly in the opening uphill stages of Le Tour de France in recent years. If he does not prove to be overly fatigued, then this should arrive at the ideal time for him to stretch his legs and push on for a jersey and stage double.
Rigoberto Uran has the turn of pace required to win from a small group after the strains and stresses of Stage 9, but needs to be on his toes in order to ensure he manages to join the race winning move. Surprisingly quiet during yesterday’s infinite exchanges and skirmishes to shape the breakaway, Uran has perhaps chosen to keep his powder dry especially for today instead. He is no longer the climber which once delivered him podium placings at the Giro d’Italia, though is capable of producing his best when a chance like this appears on his radar. The tactic for Uran shall be to join the right move, conserve as much energy as possible and look to regroup over the Mont du Chat and finish his rivals off in a sprint to the line.
Chris Froome needs to put down a marker soon, as rumblings persist that he is not quite on his best form right now. There shall be no need for him to be the aggressor today, allowing him to challenge his rivals to light the race up if the wish to take the maillot jaune from upon his shoulders. However, we have seen previously that he likes to prove a point at the earliest opportunity possible, meaning it would come as no surprise to see him attack on the final climb in order to contend for the stage win.
Richie Porte and BMC are almost anxious at the prospect of not being able to land a blow on Chris Froome already, despite there being very few opportunities to achieve precisely that in the opening week. Perhaps not as strong as expected entering the race, Porte has the credentials to challenge for the win and cause a stir amongst the general classification, but needs to ride clever to achieve this. A great time trial rider, he should know how to pace his efforts through the day’s major climbs, before once again calling upon these talents to solo his way to victory in the final 14km of flat terrain.
Others worth considering are Pierre Rolland, Primoz Roglic, Jarlinson Pantano and Louis Meintjes.
1st Romain Bardet 2nd Fabio Aru 3rd Chris Froome