After one week of intense riding, it’s now time for the big mountains as the peloton enters the Pyrenees. The general classification will be changed significantly and we will see which riders have the legs to win this Tour de France and who don’t.
Starting in Castres the riders head south towards the Pyrenees. The first 140 km are more or less flat and a morning breakaway will have plenty of time to get a big gap. This is the first big mountain stage of the Tour and there are a lot more KOM points up for grabs than we’ve seen in the past week. It’s a good opportunity for riders targeting the Polka Dot Jersey but it won’t be easy to make it all the way. I think Biel Kadri will attack in order to gain more points but I doubt he will repeat teammate Christophe Riblon's win from 2010.
After a 155.5 km the ascent of the first HC climb of this year’s Tour de France, Col de Pailhères begins. The 15.3 km towards the top have an average gradient of 8 % and steep parts of over 10 % near the top. There are still 30 km to the finishing line from the top of Col de Pailhères but if you get dropped here, your stage is pretty much over already.
The GC riders will have to be ready right from the beginning of Col de Pailhères and I would expect Team Sky to try setting their usually high pace up the climb.
The final climb of the day, Ax 3 Domaines, starts immediately after the 20 km long descent from Col de Pailhères. There are 9.3 km to go from the bottom of Ax 3 Domaines but it climb itself is only 7.8 km long. It has an average gradient of 8.2 % and the first 5 km are very steep. It evens out a bit with 2 km to the top and then it kicks up again with 8 % the last km.
In 2010, when Stage 14 of the Tour de France finished on Ax 3 Domaines, Chrisophe Riblon make it all way after a long breakaway. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck were practicing their stop-n-go tactic and the peloton didn’t seem interested in fighting for the stage win. I think that will change this time.
This being the first uphill finish, there is a big psychological value of getting an advantage over your opponents, no matter how small it is. Froome has six seconds on Contador in the general classification but even though the climb is steep, I don’t think the gap between the two will change much. The way I see it, Froome and Contador are more or less on the same level and I doubt one will be able to drop the other. Both know it’s vital not to lose anything time, not even a second, and they will probably be more focused on each other than on their rivals. Still, it’s not going to be like Contador and Schleck the last time on Ax 3 Domaines, that’s for sure.
I think the fight for the stage win will be between Froome and Contador. That being said, don’t rule out Purito and Valverde just yet. Both are very fast and with 1.5 km of flat towards the finishing line, it’s not unlikely this could end in a sprint.
I’m pretty sure Froome will put in a couple of strong attacks to drop his rivals and I wouldn’t be surprised if Contador is the only rider able to follow him. Valverde, Purito, Evans etc. won’t be far off but I doubt they will be able to respond to Froome’s or Contador’s strong accelerations. Should it end like that, with Froome and Contador arriving together, I think Froome will take the win. He outsprinted Contador - and Purito - in a flat finish in Tour of Oman earlier this year and he shouldn’t have problems beating Contador in a sprint this time either.
I think Team Sky, Saxo-Tinkoff and probably Movistar too will set such a high pace on Col de Pailhères that it kills a breakaway’s chances of succeeding. Therefore, I rather focus on strong climbers, already behind in the GC, for the joker spot. I have two strong outsiders for this stage and they both ride for Euskaltel. The Tour enters Basque territory in the Pyrenees and the roads will be colored orange. Mikel Nieve and Igor Antón are both 1:29 minutes down in the GC and they are only here for stage wins. On paper, this Tour de France is great for climbers like Nieve and Antón but for Euskaltel a stage win is much more important than finishing 10th overall. Both riders have won stages in Giro d’Italia and Vuelta España in the past and they are now aiming to enter the club of stage winners in all three Grand Tours. Samuel Sanchez took third place on Ax 3 Domaines in 2010 and with a little luck; Euskaltel can improve that result Saturday afternoon.
Favorite: Chris FroomeJokers: Mikel Nieve & Igor Antón
For live race coverage go to Steephill.tv.
Just like during the Giro d’Italia this year, I once again have the chance to bring you daily “Fly Through” previews from Global Cycling Network. Here is Stage 8: