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Will the climbing ever end? This is supposed to be another 'transition' stage, but yet again they face a lumpy stage that ends with another 'Mur' at the finish, this time up the tough Col de la Croix Neuve, which averages 10.1% for 2kms! Despite the tired legs in the bunch there are sure to be some who have pencilled this stage in to their roadbooks as one to target.
It's a strange profile to the race, it climbs more or less from the flag drop for 44kms, before plunging down in to the Tarn Valley on a very fast and twisty descent, down the sort of road you had to traverse to go north or south past Millau in the days before they built the spectacular Millau Viaduct bridge (above). You prayed that you weren't stuck behind a dreaded camping car when trying to make good time to the south, you could have to sit behind it for miles until you got to the top!
After they hit the Tarn Valley, they roll alongside the Tarn river, rising gently for more or less 80kms, before they start hitting the Massif Central proper and the road gets lumpy again, culminating in the nasty kick to the finish in Mende, and then a downhill/flat run to the line on the airstrip.
Make no mistake about it though - this is a proper, hard finish - it is not short like the Mur de Huy and it's steeper and longer than the Mur de Bretagne. It could turn in to a real GC battle like it did in 2010 when Contador and Rodriguez attacked out of the back and left the yellow jersey, Andy Schleck behind. It is a very hard climb, it's a brilliant climb, packed with incredibly passionate fans and it could be a spectacular finish.
After leaving the town of Rodez they head south-west first, climbing steadily more or less from the flag drop for 44kms. Even though the climbing goes on for 44kms, there is a KOM about half way up when they hit one of the steeper sections. The Cote de Porte de Salars is a Cat 4 bump of XXkms which averages XX%, but there's another steep little ramp at Salles Curran before they crest the Col de Vernhette and then dive down to the Tarn Valley.
Once on the valley floor they traverse the valley for some 80kms, rising gently all the way along the valley floor until they reach Saint-Enimie after 137kms. Suddenly they have to climb back out of the valley again and up to the hills of the edges of the Massif Central. To get there they pass over the Cat 2 Cote e Sauveterre, a 9km climb that averages 6% and this could be used as a launching pad for late attacks as the road gets pretty lumpy from here on in and there's only 32kms left once over the top.
A 5km run along the plateau top is followed by a 5km fast and tricky descent, and shortly after they start up the Cat 4 Cote de Chabrits (1.9kms at 5.4%). A quick descent takes them to the base of the climb in to Mende, one last challenge for the break of the day or the scene for a duel between the puncheurs like we've seen on the two Murs they've had to climb already in this race.
The final climb to Mende is going to be a killer and we could see time gaps if some of the GC men get separated from the front of the race, there will be gaps all over the place on this climb. It starts off steep at 8.3% average for around 800m before it gets even steeper, rising at nearly a 14% average for the next 1600m, then eases a little again back to about 8% before a more or less flat run to the line for the last 1300m - they finish on the airstrip of the airport they built on the plateau overlooking the town. It's likely that we'll get a solo winner, or a very small group fight out the finish, regardless of whether that comes from a long break or the peloton - there won't be too many coming to the finish together on this hill. In 2010 there was 31" to Rubén Plaza in 10th place and 1'11" to Sylvain Chavanel in 26th place.
The weather can be very changeable in this part of France, 35 degrees and sunny one minute and a torrential thunderstorm downpour the next. It looks like tha could be the case on Saturday as they should start in dry conditions, maybe light showers, but it's exected to get pretty wet with thunderstorms in the afternoon. It could make it an epic stage in the rain for some hero's if they fancy it.
Again we are faced with the dilemma of whether a break makes it or not. Ever since Sky took control of the race it's kind of killed it in terms of increased likelihood of breaks making it - Sky have generally no reason to chase and not many other teams seem to want to, or are capable of taking up the chase. It might be slightly different on this stage though, like in today's stage, there should be lots of teams interested in trying to get their men to the front for the bottom of this finish, especially if they have missed the break.
Dan Martin - he should have won on the Mur de Bretagne, but got himself boxed in like an amateur right at the point when a move was likely to go. And on stage 11 to Cauterets he should have won also - they missed the break, waited until the break had almost five minutes before trying to bridge across. Dan clearly had good legs as he bridged that gap all on his own, but as I feared be might, blew up for a while on the Tourmalet after that effort, but then rallied very well at the end of the stage and charged up the final climb. Can he get it right on this climb?
Talansky, Haas and possibly Navardauskas are starting to come right, Talanksy and Hesjedal always go better in the latter parts of stage races, so maybe they can look after him a bit better. If he's in a good position this time he has a big chance of finally taking a stage win. Interestingly, he came home over six minutes down today, his agents SEG said this afternoon in a tweet "Real pity @DanMartin86 is not feeling well. This had been a great chance again. Hopefully he is able to get better soon and chase that stage." It's a tough one, it could be all a bluff and he could come there flying tomorrow, but I think he might have struggled on that climb, unless he came there as part of a break that wasn't going to be caught, I think Froome and co. would have left him behind if they went full gas.
Looking at the result from the last time they came up here though, this does look like it is a stage finish for the really strong GC men and really strong puncheurs. There is a chance the break will make it but I actually give it less chance than today's stage and they were caught just in the nick of time. Alejandro Valverde is the 5/2 favourite for the stage and you can see why, he has actually been riding really well despite having to look after Quintana. He 'won' the sprint for 3rd on the Mur de Bretagne and finished a good 5th on LPSM when Froome blew the race apart. He has probed and poked at the front on climbs trying to set up Quintana, but so far Nairo has been unable to return the favours.
This finish is perfect for Valverde though, as he should be right there at the front of the climb when they hit the flat last kilometre, where his sprint should probably win the stage.
Of course the winner last time up was Purito Rodriguez, attacking out the bunch, then kicking on with Contador to the finish where he clearly was given the stage by Contador, there was lots of chatting going on. He is in great form this week too, he had the strength and the stamina to hold them all off on a horrible day to be riding on your own to win on the Plateau de Beille. He has a chance for sure based on his form on the climb, and the 4 places might help as he could be best of the rest behind maybe Froome and Quintana if they kick off, or possibly just behind Valverde in 4th. The 7/1 with Bet365 paying 4 places might do.
Chris Froome - what will we see from him tomorrow? It should be a climb he'll like because they won't have had to do too much work up until then possibly, other teams might be doing the chasing for the stage win, like Katusha or Movistar. They can then come to the front on the climb with Porte, Roche and Thomas and rip it to pieces before Froome spins off the front in his trademark style at 130RPM. It all depends on whether he wants it or not, will he be happy to just sit in? Also, if the likes of Valverde and Rodriguez manage to stay with him then they will beat him in the sprint. He's as big as 10/1 but I'm going to leave him I think.
Nairo Quintana needs to start doing something soon, and this could be a stage if he can attack through the crowds and Froome gets a little boxed in, it's quite narrow in parts.. But he just doesn't seem to have the explosiveness or the power to get away and stay away, it's all been very tame. Maybe he'll be better in the Alps.
Of course a break could make it too, but calling the names of tomorrow's break is very hard to do - we could go for some of the usual suspects that were expected to go in breaks up till now? Ryder Hesjedal might finally go, he would fancy this final climb if he gets to the last few kms with a small group and a clear lead. MickaelCherel has been riding well lately, getting up the road in the break a few days ago and finishing a very impressive 8th place on PDB. He is 125/1 for tomorrow.
I think though that the break has a slim chance - I think Katusha, Movistar, AG2R and maybe Sky, Cannondale and Lampre (for Pozzato?) will chase and bring it back. As they hit the climb, Movistar and Sky will have a battle to take control of the front and I think it will be a GC scrap again like in 2010. I think Froome will try to push it, Quintana will chase him and Contador, Tejay, Valverde, Rodriguez and Nibali will do their utmost to hang on. Quintana might try something and force Froome and the others to chase, setting it up nicely for Valverde either to come over the top or wait for the sprint finish.
Rodriguez is chasing KOM points and he might put in a big dig for the summit of the climb, which comes 1300m from the finish - if the others look around and wait for someone to chase, he could be gone. BaukeMollema, Gallopin and Gesink might be able to get back in as the road flattens out, like Schleck in 2010, but I think it could be a Spanish day tomorrow. No wild scatter gun approach tomorrow, two main bets, a few small break lottery tickets and a decent match bet on a Purito who will be after points against a sick and over-heated Dan Martin
1pt each-way on Joaquim Rodriguez at 7/1 with Skybet paying 4 places
1.5pts each-way on Alejandro Valverde at 6/1 with Skybet paying 4 places.
0.2pts each-way on MickaelCherel at 125/1 with PaddyPower
0.25pts each-way on Ryder Hesjedal at 40/1 with Ladbrokes
Joaquim Rodriguez to beat Dan Martin – 3pts at 4/5 with Ladbrokes