Though only yesterday, the rest day will seem a million years ago for many in the peloton on Stage 17 of 2015’s Le Tour de France; sending the riders headlong into an Alpine summit finish for their first day back in the saddle. Tasking them with an 161km long trip from the start in Digne-les-Bains to a summit finish upon the historic Pra Loup climb of the Alps. For those not so immersed in cycling folklore, the ascent of Pra Loup was the scene of a rare sight during the 1975 Tour de France; the dethroning of Eddy Merckx by Bernard Thévenet. If that in itself does not ring any bells, then perhaps the fact an almost identical route and finish was used during this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné will; Romain Bardet emerging victorious after attacking on Pra Loup’s preceding descent on that day.
Essentially, it is safe to say that the peloton will be plenty well versed enough to anticipate what exactly awaits them on this first day back in the moutains, the favourite poised to ignite their last chance efforts to force Chris Froome out of the maillot jaune before Paris. The day’s account is opened by the Category 3 Col de Leques (6km, avg 5.3%) which tops out at the 40km marker and serves as a moderate warmup ahead of Stage 17’s schedule. A further 27km down the road comes the summit of the second of the day’s climbs, the Category 3 Col de Toutes Aures, one hundred meters longer than its predecessor but offering an easier gradient of 3.1% to be conquered.
A brief descent follows on from here and places the riders at the base of the Category 2 Col de la Colle-Saint-Michel, a much longer climb at 11km and averaging 5.2% from start to finish. The summit of this climb will come just before the century mark at 96km of riding, running immediately into another brief downhill section. Stage 17’s intermediate sprint appears slightly further down the road after 111km of racing and is bound to see Peter Sagan mixing it up again; if the break have not swept up all the points before the Slovak passes through. Onwards from this brief competition, the road segues straight into the ascent of the day’s solitary Category 1 climb; the Col d’Allos. This 14km ascent will soon begin to offer us up an indication of who is in good form during the day’s ride to Pra Loup, though billed as 5.5% on paper for the entirety, it is the testing 6km run to the summit which fluctuates between 6% and 8.5% which will be the battle until they drop down the other side.
From its summit, a little over 20km will separate the peloton from the summit finish of Stage 17, Pra Loup sure to be dialling up the anxiety as they drop down to its opening slopes. If the impending rush to win the was not enough to add fuel to the fires of stress, the descent which connects the two final climbs is also technically demanding and is sure to act as a launchpad for a gifted climber to gather an advantage on the downhill before scaling the gradients to Pra Loup. Given that its length is only 6.2km in total, some may consider the anticipated drama to occur here to be over exaggerated, but there is sure to be enough action to bring the frontrunners to the fore and see some serious defending of the yellow jersey by Chris Froome. The gradients here are stated to average a constant 6.5%, though its final kilometre is set to make for some interesting viewing as it spikes upwards to 8.5%. A short finishing straight will decide the day, only 80m in fact, meaning there is little imperative for somebody who rolls well on the flat to make the cut upon the final climb unlike Stage 14.
The opening Alpine salvo of 2015’s Tour de France is sure to lure some riders out who began this race in Utrecht with well founded ambitions of featuring towards the pointy end of this year’s general classification, but now find themselves separated by around ten minutes to current leader Chris Froome. However, despite many perceiving a gradual demise of Team Sky’s strength due to the abandonment of Peter Kennaugh and the ailing form of Richie Porte, Wout Poels and Nicolas Roche; Chris Froome might decide to strike out once again and demonstrate his dominance. Though not wishing to jinx him, there is a great misconception about Froome’s ability to descend, a total absence of evidence to suggest he cannot keep pace with the likes of Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali. Assuming he stays within 15 seconds of a rider such as Valverde heading into the opening sections of Pra Loup. There is little to argue against Froome taking yet another summit finish victory at Le Tour de France.
As stated above, Alejandro Valverde appears to be a likely contender to attack on the final descent and try to gain an advantage to his rivals before turning onto Pra Loup. The descent is technical, meaning Froome may decided to back down on the pace somewhat in pursuite of Valverde, allowing the Spainard to start the ascent to home solo; a climb which suits his attributes well given its distance and gradients. If away late into the stage, Froome will not wish to work too hard to bring him back, as their is a strong chance of Nairo Quintana then immediately counter-attacking as soon as his teammate is reeled back in.
AG2R will be confident of featuring in some form during the finale of Stage 17 and Romain Bardet should be confident of animating the race given his recent winning performance on almost the exact same course during this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné. The young Frenchman appears to be finding his legs at last and is likely to invest his efforts heavily during this Alpine conclusion of the tour after his general classification hopes failed to make it through the opening week. There is obviously the chance that his focus will instead be placed upon cementing his top ten general classification placing, as those sitting around him will not be particularly fond of seeing his bike vanish up the road during their ride down Col d’Allos.
Of those who entered his race has contenders for the overall win, Vincenzo Nibali is now the rider likey to be given the most freedom to attack on a stage such as this. Little needs to be said of the Italian’s prowess for descending, a talent which would set him up well if deciding to attack as soon as the summit of the Col d’Allos is reached. As little as thirty seconds could be enough of an advantage for Nibali to fend off his pursuers on Pra Loup, but it will be hard to pull out such time if the likes of Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde wish to keep him on a tight leash. Entering this final week, Nibali does look to have begun finding his climbing legs once again, but he will need a reasonable cushion to emerge victorious atop Pra Loup.
Nairo Quintana has the possibility to begin pulling back time from Chris Froome on Stage 17, the Col d’Allos and Pra Loup an enticing combination which could see the Colombian attack hard on both ascents. As mentioned earlier, Froome is beginning to appear isolated in the latter stages of these mountain days and has the potential to start creaking under the pressure of his Spanish speaking rivals. With teammate Alejandro Valverde equally well poised to attack Froome, the Movistar combination could finally strike gold if they play their cards right.
Though Romain Bardet’s win on a carbon copy stage at this year’s Crtéterium du Dauphiné was the main headline, eyebrows were slightly raised after Tejay Van Garderen’s performance saw him take four seconds out of his rival Chris Froome. Though it is unlikely to see the American fighting for the win here, it should be monitored as to how well he copes with his general classification rivals attack; possibly making a move himself yet again to take a handful of seconds.
Two noteworthy riders currently placed in the top ten overall are Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema, who could contribute a surprising amount of energy into pursing a rider such as Vincenzo Nibali; stopping him from leapfrogging Gesink or pulling away from Mollema. On the road, both are finding their climbing legs at last and are often dangerously underrated on a stage finish such as this. Both have the ability to lay down high tempo attacks, but it is Mollema who stands out as the most likely to attempt such a move in the final kilometres in order to gain time on the general classification.
Of course, a breakaway winning on Stage 17 remains a strong possibility, especially if the dynamic of strength and size is struck spot on when going clear. Simon Yates has been ill during Le Tour, but stated that his ambitions were to rest and actively recover as best as possible, before then coming to the fore on his favoured Alpine climbs. If Romain Bardet fails for AG2R on today’s stage, Alexis Vuillermoz will be waiting in the wings to take over and lead the charge in either a breakaway or elite group of contenders which reaches Pra Loup first. He was only 1:37 down on Bardet during that Dauphiné finish this year and has already demonstrated his form by winning on Stage 8. Yet further French hopes can be flown by Pierre Rolland, who is in good condition, but is not always best positioned to follow the right moves. Having finished within a minute of Bardet on Pra Loup at the Dauphiné, he must feel confident of mounting a serious charge once again on Stage 17’s same finale. The South-African Louis Meintjes is well worth a mention on a day such as this, he has looked strong throughout the mountains for the most part so far and placed 6th (50″ down) when Bardet took the Pra Loup win last month.
Others worth keeping an eye on are Daniel Martin, Rafael Valls, Mathias Frank, Joaquim Rodriguez, Wilco Kelderman, Ryder Hesjedal and Andrew Talansky.
Breakaway: 1st Romain Bardet 2nd Louis Meintjes 3rd Simon Yates
GC Riders: 1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Chris Froome 3rd Bauke Mollema