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The second day of the Pyrenean trilogy sees things taken up a notch in the climbing stakes. Tuesday's stage to La Pierre St Martin was just an appetiser in terms of metres climbed, with just the one hard climb. This stage has six climbs including the Haute Category Col du Tourmalet - the Souvenir Jacques Goddet for the highest point in the Tour at 2,115 metres.
Not only does stage 11 go over the legendary Tourmalet, it also goes over another old favourite of the Tour, the Col d'Aspin, a Cat 1 climb that reaches almost 1500m. Cauterets also has it's tragic place in Tour history as the last time the tour visited in 1995, Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli died after hitting his head on a concrete bollard on the descent of the Col de Portet-d'Aspet, something I remember watching live, it's still etched in my brain.
A break, depending on the composition of it, could stay away on this stage - the uphill start to the day could mean we see furious action for the first hour until a break is established, as there are 42 KOM points on offer and they will know there is a chance it could make it all the way. It could make it because, first, with the uphill start a descent sized group of up to 20 riders could get away. If most teams are represented, there will be no need for their teams to chase. Sky are probably happy to just roll along and take a rest day before the final Pyrenean stage on Thursday.
The route heads south-east for 85kms, taking in three nice and easy climbs, the Cat 3 Côte de Loucrup, a 2km snap at 7% after 48kms, the Cat 4 Côte de Bagnères-de-Bigorre, a 1.4km speed bump at 6.1% after 61.5kms and the Cat 3 Côte de Mauvezin, a 2.7km climb at 6% after 74.5kms.
After 85kms they pass through the feed zone and turn right and head south for 20kms to the foot of the first serious climb of the day, the Col d'Aspin as they now start heading west. The Col d'Aspin starts from the village of Arreau after 105kms and is a tough Cat 1 climb that averages 6.5% for 12 kilometres. It gets steeper the further up the climb, hitting parts averaging between 8-9.5% about half way up. They crest it with 117kms gone and then descend for 12kms down a twisty and fast descent to the foot of the Tourmalet.
The Tourmalet is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour de France, having been used many times in the past. It starts after 130kms and is 17.1kms long at an average of 7.3%. The first 5kms are an easier gradient, closer to 4%, but then it starts to kick up and climbs pretty steady at an average closer to 9% for the next 12kms, hitting 10% in several sections.
Once over the top of the Tourmalet, with the Souvenir Jacques Goddet awarded for the highest pass in the race after 147kms, they then descend for 31kms to PierrefitteNestalas, where they start the final climb to the finish. The climb to Cauterets is 6.4kms long at 5%, so it's not the hardest finish to a stage by any means, the damage will have been done on the Tourmalet. The Côte de Cauterets isn't actually the end of the stage, that is crested after 184.5kms, but the climb carries on for another 3.5kms to the finish line. The road up to the KOM of the Côte de Cauterets is quite twisty with 7 or 8 hairpin bends, but then the road straightens out to a pretty straight road to the finish for the last 3.4kms. The last 2kms are more or less flat to the line, with just a little kick up for 400m from the 1km to go banner.
We will either see a breakaway ride to fight out the stage win, or a select group of GC men who will have left all the rest behind fight it out on the final climb.
As I said in the opening paragraphs above, I think a break could have a pretty decent chance of making it in this stage - it's trying to guess who will be in it is the tricky part, with up to 100 riders potentially wanting to be in there! There are bound to be plenty of French teams involved of course, and we have to start with Europcar, whom I think will definitely have at least one rider in the break.
Pierre Rolland was a likely character for this kind of stage, he loves the dramatic and significant stages, the man has won on Alped'Huez after all. He had been relatively quiet up until now and sufficiently back on GC to be allowed go without much worry, but then he put in a big ride today and could well be tired after it. He still sits way down in 23rd place though, so he might be let go if he fancies it.
What about a team-mate to go instead of him maybe? Cyril Gautier has been very active so far in this race, being in a break on three stages, if not more. We could well see him on the move again, or possibly Thomas Voeckler or Quemeneur, which is a bit more their sort of terrain maybe.
Cofidis could see Edet, Navarro or Maté go up the road. Bretagne Seche have Eduardo Sepulveda, a fine climber from Argentina, who has finished 4th and 6th in the Tour de San Luis. He has been relatively quiet so far also in the race to date, but he did finish a creditable 19th in today's stage. He might well fancy giving it a go today before he gets too fatigued in what is his first Grand Tour. I don't know if any of the FDJ squad are good enough to consider backing to get in the break, except maybe Jeremy Roy or Alexandre Geniez.
Trek Factory Racing have some likely lads for a break like this, Julian Arredondo being the first - if he really has designs on the KOM jersey then he needs to get in this break today with the Cat 1 and HC climbs coming later in the stage, added to the three easier climbs earlier in the stage. I think he's over-rated though and I'm not backing him tomorrow. Bob Jungels and HaimalZubeldia are two more that could go.
It really is wide open - lots of riders will be hurting physically after today, the climb was a real back-breaker. Others will be suffering mentally - do we think Nibali, Rodriguez, Contador and Martin can scrape themselves off the floor and go on the attack? Nibali looked particularly vulnerable after today's stage, he looks like a man on the edge, but we could see a kamikaze descent off the Tourmalet, but I'm not sure he'll even be with the leaders at that point to be able to do it. Picking the break winner is just a stab in the dark and picking from the GC favourites equally so - the betting is absolutely wide open, with the shortest priced runner on Betfair being Valverde, and he is 11! There are loads of riders in the 20s, 30s, 40s and bigger - it really is pin-sticking time.
The final climb isn't as hard as today's in fact it should suit a lot more riders a lot better - that is, if they are still in contact after the climb and the descent of the Tourmalet! The climb of the Tourmalet is hard, but it depends of course on how hard it's ridden - if Sky/Movistar and the peloton are going flat out, the break may not have a chance and we'll be looking at a reduced group of GC candidates who will fight out the finish. If that's the case, it is easy to see why Valverde is favourite, he should win a reduced group sprint.
If they sit up and let the break get an unassailable lead then they might be happy to roll to the final climb and fight it out just on the Cauterets. Froome said he wasn't going to attack today, we should know by now, as I said, that means nothing. Whether he will attack on this easier climb is hard to tell, or will he save energy for Thursday's stage?
RafalMajka, Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin, Rui Costa - all top class riders who could sneak away at some point. Louis Meintjes finished a creditable 24th in today's stage but is now over an hour down on the GC, he could well look to get in tomorrow's break for MTN.
I think though that I am just going to have a few fun bets tomorrow as it is impossible to call, but the main bet being on Alejandro Valverde to win the sprint from a reduced bunch, should the break not make it. We may even see him divebomb off the Tourmalet to try to make Froome and Sky chase, hopefully putting Froome under pressure, and possibly set up Nairo for a counter attack on the final climb. One other rider who I have my eye on is Jacob Fuglsang, who might now be let off the leash with Nibali out of it, he will like the latter part of this race and if he goes in the break he could solo to victory late on. He looks too big with PP, he is 80/1, he's only 22/1 with Ladbrokes. Not a day for big stakes tomorrow though!
1pt win on alejandro Valverde at 11 on Betfair
0.3pts each-way on Jacob Fuglsang at 80/1 with PaddyPower
0.3pts each-way on Louis Meintjes at 40/1 with Ladbrokes
0.1pts each-way on Eduardo Sepulveda at 150/1 with Skybet
0.1pts each-way on Luis Angel Maté at 250/1 with Skybet