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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Enter the Pyrenees

Tour de France: Today's climbs and the big GC shake-up

Today sees the first of the big encounters that will decide the Tour de France.  For the next 10 days, the Pyrenees and the Alps will loom large before the GC riders still remaining in this year's Tour de France.

There are four mountain top finishes in the the next ten days of racing, all of them atop the "out-of-category" climbs that are the longest and most challenging in the Tour.  The first comes today - Luz Ardiden.  This is the climb where Lance Armstrong famously won the 2003 Tour de France after falling when a spectator's bag hooked his handlebars.

It's a 13.3 km climb, at an average gradient of 7.4%, rising up from 741m to 1,715m at the finish.  The peloton will encounter tougher climbs than this in the course of the Tour.  For example, the Plateau de Beille which is the finishing climb on Saturday is longer (15.8 km) and steeper at 7.9%.  And from personal experience, if it's warm, that climb is doubly brutal because my recollection of it is that there's little tree-cover and most of the roads are south-facing.

Today's stage: Profile and finishing climb

But back to today.  Luz Ardiden comes at the end of a difficult day.  The first exposure to the high mountains is always challenging, because as we have seen, the main GC riders have been relatively sheltered in the peloton, and tend to ride with relatively low cadences, in big gears.  Today, that changes, and the legs must adapt to pushing the smaller gears, albeit on steep climbs.  This year's Tour has already been challenging - we had the teaser of Saturday's stage to Super Besse, for example, and so it hasn't exactly been pancake flat so far.

But, today are the real mountains.  The stage profile is shown below - it comprises a Category 1 climb with 80km to ride (9.9 km at 7.5%), and then the famous Col du Tormalet (17.1km at 7.3% - about the same gradient as the finishing climb, but around 4 km longer) at around 50km to go.  From the summit, it's down to Luz St Saveur where the final pull to the finish line begins, and where the racing will really hot up.

The slopes of the final climb are shown in a bit more detail below (click to enlarge).  It's always difficult to know exactly where a climb starts and ends, and the profile below has the climb a shade over 14.5km compared to the official listing of 13.3km, but work backwards from the finish and you get a rough idea. The Tour climb is probably measured from about 1.5km on the profile below.

There's nothing absolutely terrifying about any given section of the climb, no section that kicks up to 12%.  It's just a steady, hard climb at 8 to 10% pretty much the whole way.  But the series of kilometers in the middle, about halfway up the climb are probably where the biggest attacks may come.  That section is about 6km long, and at an average grade of 8.5%.

The first few kilometers "ease" the peloton into it, and here is where the support for team leaders will become evident.  The likes of Chris Anke Sorensen will appear at the front of the peloton to keep the intensity hard for their GC contenders.  We've seen from previous years that the intensity at the base of the climb will probably be at its highest - last year, for example, Sorensen rode at 6.6W/kg for the first 11:14 of the Col du Tormalet, and the intensity for the leaders dropped after his departure, as the overall power output was probably around 5.9 to 6W/kg on that climb.

That's with the exception of the attacks, of course, where the power output will jump to 10 W/kg or higher for the 30 seconds where a rider shoots off the front.

And the attacks are really the big question of the Stage today.

Physiological poker: Who has what?

There are a number of interesting questions around the racing strategy in today's stage.  Apart from the more obvious tactical issue of whether Contador (and to a lesser extent Robert Gesink) can attack in order to make up time lost as a result of falls in week 1, there is the ever-present issue of Contador's form against that of Evans and the Schleck brothers.

They're clearly following very different season trajectories, particularly Andy Schleck who has been very quiet all year, basically because he is building up to these 10 days.  Contador, on the other hand, has been prolific and won the Giro and now has the challenge, as we've mentioned, of maintaining form through another three-week race.

So will he attack?  Physiologically, it's interesting and almost the equivalent of game theory, because neither party knows what 'cards' the other is holding.  The simple truth is that Contador must make up time on the Schlecks and Evans (particularly Evans because of his better time-trial ability).  However, the choice for Contador is WHEN to attempt it?

This is going to sound obvious, but it has complex implications - his best chance is to attack when he is strongest and the rivals are at their relative weakest.  There are thus four different scenarios or "degrees of freedom" in that picture - Contador may be strongest now, and may struggle in the third week of the Tour because of the Giro effect. Then again, he may have detrained after the Giro and is now building fitness and will be strongest at the end.  All depends on his training in the month between the Giro and the Tour.

Similarly, for Evans and Schleck, the question is, are they building to an even stronger performance in the final week as a result of coming into the race "underdone"?  If so, then Contador's best opportunity may be in the Pyrenees, because as they strengthen (and he presumably weakens), it will become progressively more difficult.

So that's the big question on everyone's minds - how do the big four or five protagonists approach this stage (and Saturday's) given the stakes, the challenges that lie ahead, and also the situation that has been forced upon them by previous stages?

With it being Bastille day in France, expect a big French showing, in an early breakaway, but expect that break to have been brought back to a few minutes, three or four, by the time the big favourites hit the foot of Luz Ardiden.  Then it's every man for himself, and one of the most intriguing Tour stages that we've seen in many years.

I am going to hedge my bets on this one - it's just too difficult to call.  Whether Contador feels strong enough (he mentioned earlier in the week that he was worried about a knee injury, though has more recently said it's fine) is going to determine the rhythm of the climb.  I suspect Andy Schleck will counter-attack only if attacked first, but for him, today remains about not losing time.  His big efforts will come in the Alps.  Frank Schleck may prove the critical factor.  And as for Evans, impossible to know.  Our local experts have awarded him the yellow jersey already - I await one bad day to deny him, but it's anyone's guess.

Only time will tell, and it's fabulous to have such an open Tour once again.  I believe (as I know many of you do) that these wide open Tours are another cause for some optimism about reduced (not removed) doping in the sport.  Let's hope it's a great day!  And let's hope that some great power output data is made available - I'll be sure to follow up with analysis of whatever we do see.

But that's for tomorrow, for today, enjoy the racing!