With the Giro D’Italia now over, all thoughts in the world of cycling turn to the Tour De France and this week’s coming Criterium Du Dauphine is the final preparation for many of the race’s top contenders ahead of the grand depart in Yorkshire which is now less than a month away.
And what a preparation it is too, with a relentless succession of climbs to pound away at the legs of hopeful for next months’ big test with no hiding place for any of the hopefuls.
We start today with a short time trial, coming in at just 10.4kms, with a 4th category climb bookended by flat sections at the beginning and the end with 800m that has an average of 5.5 and a max of 10% unlikely to trouble many. The gaps will be small, a deliberate ploy by ASO to keep time gaps small before tomorrow’s opening road stage, where the order of the general classification will be well and truly set.
A 6 climb 156km stage from Tarare to Col Du Beal, starting out in hard fashion with of the two opening climbs of Côte de Saint-Marcel-l'Éclairé (5km at 6.1%) and Côte d'Albigny (2,3km at 5.5%), the mid stage tests of the 2nd category Cote De Bard (6.3km at 5.3%), Homme Mort (5.6km at 5.6%), and the 3rd category Col Des Paradeux (7.3km at 3.6%) before a steep descent and fast run to the final climb, the hors-categorie Cold Du Beal, 13.6km at 6.6%, a test of stamina with a kilometre at 9% midway through. It’s a brutal day so early in the race and likely to se the main favourites come out to play with time bonuses on the line and much up for grabs, and look for the power climbers to come to the fore early and grab yellow.
Stage 3 is the one for the sprinters and punchers, although rolling roads will make it difficult to bring back a break – even if the 2 second category climbs, the Cote De Lavet (8.7km at 4.4%), and Col De La Mure, placed generously for the faster men – there’s just about 30km from the finish after the Col De La Mure and 28 of them are flat.
Stage 4 to gap is innocuous if you just take a look at the profile but a look through recent history books and it is an exact replication of Stage 16 in last year’s Tour De France, where Rui Costa soloed to victory and the main favourites, wanting to take time back on Chris Froome before the Alps, attacked up and down the Col De Manse, when Contador crashed and held up Chris Froome and Richie Porte was forced to pull the two back to the main group on the descent. With the Manse just 12kms from the finish, the attacking platform has great potential for stage and overall contenders alike.
Stage 5 looks to be one for the breakway, as the Manse is the first of 6 climbs, the manse being tackled after 68.5 kms and then the Cote Du Motty, deceptively labelled a third category climb (2.3km at 8.1%), followed by veering roads that drop and climb regardless of whether they’re officially listed as climbs – although the trio of short, extremely sharp climbs (Cote De La Haut, 2.7km at 7.4%, Col de Malissol 2km at 8.8%, and Col de Morte, 3.1km at 8.4%). After a sharp descent, there’s then the Cote De Laffey, 6.3km at 6.2%, a tough effort in stamina after such a day in the mountains, before more rolling roads and a sprint finish.
The faster men get their last chance of the race on Stage 6, a long day with little to fear apart from 3 category 4 climbs. More important is the placement of such climbs – the Cote De Ronzy is 1.7km at 6.3% and tops out with less than 10km to the finish, and in the final slopes – between 2 and 1km’s to go the percentage hits 15% - so look to the punchers again for the stage wins.
Now we have the race’s ending proper. Two days in the high mountain will decide the winner of this year’s race, and the first of them is the hardest stage without a doubt. The Cote Des Gets comes after 22kms and is only an average of 5%, but at 10.3kn a long test this early in the day. Then we have the Corbier, a 7.5km affair at the same percentage where the first selection of the day is a likely matter, even with so long to go. The Pas de Morgin comes after a break of 24kms, before a long steep descent, and then 23kms of flat before the real tests. The Col De La Focla is worthy of ending any stage, but serves only as a prequel towards the finish today. 12.6kms long, the average of 8.2% will eject anyone not on top form and also serve as an attacking platform for those in the mood, while the legs that have already been stretched are going to be on the limit. After a shape descent of 10kms, we then have the Finaut Emosson, a leg breaker that starts out with percentages of 17% and 4 kilometres averaging more than 9% before a finishing kilometre that’s sure to suit the pure climbers more than any of the two other finishes.
After a downhill start, we have the Cote De Domancy, an explosive 2.5km lump at 9.2%, we then have the Col Des Sasies, 13.4kms at just 5.2% and a setup for a downhill, flat run to the final two climbs of the week. The Montagny, 8km at 6.5%, is a fair warmups towards the Courchevel Le Praz, a short, sharp speed y climb with the lowest percentage being 6% - one for the power climbers rather than any out and out mountaineers to finish.
The route is likely to see a climber come on top, and three of the elite grand tour specialists – arguably the world’s best – are likely to fight this out between the trio of them.
While last year’s Tour was a wonderful spectacle, the battle for the yellow jersey between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador never truly materlised, this year’s form gives much more encouragement for a close contest between the two with the Spaniard approaching his pre absence best based on his fine stage racing form this season.
Contador is yet to finish outside the top 2 in a stage race this year – in stark comparsion to his lacklustre efforts leading upto, and in this race last year, where he lost all chance of the general classification after haemorrhaging time to Chris Froome in the long time trial here. However this year he has looked far stronger, especially against the clock – albeit on testing time trial courses – and has pulled out some extremely promising performances going uphill as well, chief amongst them being his win over the double digit percentages of the Guardgelee when taking Tirreno Adriatico by 2 minuets from Giro D’Italia winner Nairo Quintana. That form can’t be taken literally given the Colombian’s obvious improvement, but he beat most of the Giro’s top 10 there and when winning Pais Vasco, also had a quality case of climbers, while he managed to come within seven seconds of Tony martin over the final Time Trial in Spain.
Now back to the form which has earned him multiple wins in all three grand tours, it’s going to be fascinating to see how he matched against defending Champion Chris Froome, who has not had the uber smooth run towards the Tour that he enjoyed last year, but showed his class in victory at Romandie after a month off the track on his second start back from injury. Froome was 10 seconds behind Contador when finishing 6th in the Volta Cyclista a Cataluyna, but that effort came after returning from aback injury and judged on his powerful performance in Romandie, where he draw comfortably clear from the Peloton along with Simon Spilak to take a minute on the Peloton and above.
It’s not going to be likely that he’s in the same form that saw him land the Tour in such style, but improvement from Romandie wouldn’t be unlikely and vibes from the Team Sky camp and Froome himself seem to suggest that he’s sharpened up his condition after training and is now much closer to his race weight ahead of this test and while the Spaniard should push him all the way, he hasn’t got much ground to make up based on previous evidence and the Briton may be the stronger of the two now with Contador also anxious to relax any potential expectation with the Vuelta on his radar as well and Froome can reward favourite backers.
While the above two have 9 stage wins between them, in 36 days of racing Vincenzo Nibali is yet to land a stage race but this parcours suits him far more than the limited opportunities available at Romandie and Paris – Nice this year was not raced with the Italian in mind. Taking that into account with the Tour of Oman coming early and nothing has been set up for him, so to see a bolder pre Tour showing ahead of July would be no surprise and he’s too big for an each/way place with the rest of the contenders.
Simon Spilak is at 22’s and has been in fine form over the past two months but summit finishes may suit others more than him this time around – look out for him on the drop down to Manse on Stage 4 although an improved Nibali may have his number.
Tejay Van Garderen is interesting, and can outrun a price of 40’s, while Andrew Talansky seems ever overlooked in the grand scheme of things and the same applies to his current outright price, with two of the three major mountain stages really suiting their racing styles. Richie Porte’s form will be the subject of many curious glances after a troubled season healthwise but he makes no appeal at 28/1.
7 pts win Chris Froome (11/10 Coral, Betfair Sportsbook)
1 pt each/way Vincenzo Nibali (10/1 Bet365)