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A short stage today, at only 138kms, short maybe, but definitely not easy. The race is really cranking up now with some seriously hard climbing today - a Cat 2, two Cat 1s and a HC thrown in for good measure. The Autobus are going to have a long day in the saddle today as they immediately face a Cat 1 climb of 15kms, right from the start.
There's going to be some serious punishment dished out at the front, and the back of the race today. With a Cat 1 climb right from the off, it wouldn't surprise me to see a break of 10-20 go again and it's quite possible we'll see a similar tactic to the stage to Pra-Loup where Sky, Movistar and Astana put men in the break to use later on in the stage.
The forecast could have a big bearing on the outcome of this stage as I mention in the Route section below, it's going to be pretty miserable out there - it could be an epic day like in the Dauphiné last year when Andrew Talansky battled through the rain and the cold to deny Froome and Contador the chance for the win. Talansky was brilliant that day, Froome cracked and Contador rode away from him.
The stage starts at the foot of La Toussuire in St Jean de Maurienne, just taunting and tormenting the riders as they leave, knowing they have to ride up it 120kms later. They start climbing right from the very start, with the 1st Cat climb of the Col du Chaussy beginning just 100m from the official start! It's going to be hell for the non-climbers, 15.4kms at an average gradient of 6.3%, with some of the kilometres along the way averaging 8.3%, 8.4% and 8.7%. There will be a break go on this first climb and the battle to get in it will have started on the rollers an hour before the race starts. It's going to be explosive, if you want to be in it, or even just want to try to avoid being dropped in the first 15kms of the race, you better be ready.After the sprint they turn and start heading south-west, and after 61kms start the monstrously long climb to the Col de la Croix de Fer.
From the bottom of the mountain to the top the climb is closer to 25kms in length, but the official measurement is given as 22.4kms, at an average of 6.9%. 3kms from the top of the Croix de Fer they pass over the summit of the Col du Glandon, the climb they already went over today, but keep on climbing to crest the HC summit of the Croix de Fer, at over 2,000m. There follows a fast descent for over 14kms that takes them to the base of the Col du Mollard, a 5.7km climb that averages 6.8%, and although it is short, it is sharp and will hurt the legs as the race is sure to be well and truly on at this stage.
A tricky 16km descent back down to Saint Jean de Maurienne takes them to the foot of the final climb of the day up out of the town to La Toussuire. This is another mighty long climb at 18kms, but it is pretty steady the whole way. There are some 8-9% sections near the bottom, but after that it is mostly 6-7%, with one kilometre in the middle being flat, before it kicks up again for the last 7kms. It suits someone getting in to a good rhythm and just pushing it all the way to the top, there are no real variations in the steepness so it's not a great climb to try sneaking away on, it's all about just pushing it as hard as you can for 18kms.
The one thing to bear in mind about this stage is the weather forecast is awful - maximum temperatures are expected to be around 16 degrees and it is forecast to rain more or less all day, with it getting heavier in the afternoon. It could make a really hard day in the saddle even harder and could see an epic performance in the rain that takes the stage, and possibly even the yellow jersey.
I think the breaks have had their fun now and this stage is going to be all about the GC guys. With a profile like this, the peloton should already be reduced dramatically after only the first climb, which tops out just 15.5kms in to the race. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a smallish break of 10 or so, only a small margin of a minute or two ahead going over the top and the chasing peloton might be made up of 40 guys or less. The rest will be all over the place for a while until the autobus gets together in the descent/valley, and then the battle will be on for them to finish inside the time limit!
Personally, of course, I would love to see Quintana come to La Toussuire with a little gap, be it 30" or so, just so he can settle in to a rhythm all on his own and just go for it. If he has Nibali or Contador with him, then that will help with the pace setting too. I want to see what happens to Froome when he has a biggish gap to try to close down. If Quintana is up the road, Froome will probably not get help from many sources. Valverde won't chase, Contador will probably attack him rather than work with him and Nibali hasn't really looked up to it. The likes of Mollema and Gesink might be gone, we could see one or two more of the Astana guys like Fuglsang, Kangert or Scarponi to help Nibali, Quintana could have Valverde, Izagirre, Herrada or Anacona, who have all been hiding in preparation for this week.
If Quintana gets away and gets in a good rhythm, he could well take a minute or more by the finish. It's a big ask, but he really probably needs closer to two minutes going in to the final mountain stage. He might steal another minute on the last stage, if he is absolutely flying and Froome isn't. It will mean he will have to go early and he will have to go hard. So far, he has just been probing and testing, Froome has been able to match almost everything he has thrown at him.
And therein lies the problem for Quintana - Froome has been able to match everything that has been thrown at him, even when isolated. The only guy to really have slipped the net recently was Nibali on the descent to Gap, where he gained 30 seconds or so, but Froome wasn't bothered about him and didn't risk killing himself on the descent.
Froome has been magnificent from the very start, you have to admit and accept. He came out of the first week with a healthy lead instead of a deficit that people expected him to have lost on the cobbles etc. He proved the doubters wrong with some superb performances in the opening week, did a great TTT and crushed them all on the first mountain stage. Since then, it has all been about control and dominance. He has been crushing their spirits, taking out his anger and frustrations of the off-the-bike circus that has been going on around him on his opponents. Not even a mouthful of piss has been able to stop him. It ruffled him, it annoyed him, but it didn't put him off the task in hand.
And that's what I fear could happen again here on Friday. Froome will know the stage to Alped'Huez could be tricky, and although it is the Saturday afternoon 'Queen stage', I think that he may want to put on the show tomorrow. Why not go in to the final stage with a lead of over four minutes, just in case. If he goes like he did on La Pierre St Martin, then only Quintana is likely to be able to stay with him, and even then, maybe not all the way to the finish like on LPSM. This is of course the climb as well where Froome attacked Wiggins in 2012, when he was forced to sit up and wait for his struggling team leader, he should/would have won that day if he didn't have to wait. He could have that at the back of his mind ever since then and might want to prove a point tomorrow.
I can't see many others who could win the stage though besides the guys at the top of the GC, if they have neutralised all the breaks. Alejandro Valverde will work his ass off for Nairo again you'd think, attacking and pushing, but at the same time, he has a 3rd place podium spot to look after, and he might go in to neutralisation mode. If so, and they come to the finish in a small group, Valverde could outsprint them for the stage victory as it eases to just 4% for the last kilometre.
Alberto Contador could of course also go for a long one and has the pedigree to ride flat out on La Toussuire to the finish, either solo or with 1 or 2 others. He will not win a sprint finish so he will have to attack and try to win the stage for some personal pride from what has been a disappointing Tour for him. He tried today though on the Glandon, and although he quickly got 20", he was reeled in again pretty quickly. I think it will take an extraordinary performance from him to win the stage.
Joaquim Rodriguez could be another interesting one, if he can hang in there with the favourites until the last few kilometres, he is likely to attack in the last few kilometres in search of the victory. He rode well today, getting in the break and hoovering up all the KOM points, but that may have taken a lot out of him, he was dropped by the group he was in today and went straight out the back, eventually finishing 11 minutes behind Froome's group. He is a former winner on La Toussuire though, winning a stage in the Dauphiné in the past.
Pierre Rolland is also a former winner on La Toussuire and showed some signs of power in the legs today when going after Bardet, but at times he was struggling to stay up with his team-mate Gautier. He will probably be one of those who will try to get in the break of the day though and could well shorten up in play, but he's only 18s best price, he probably will only shorten a little, hardly worth trading. Andrew Talansky has been very active of late, but surely can't go again tomorrow, although the long climbs are sure to suit him pretty well.
Jacob Fuglsang was raging after today's stage, saying that it is lucky that the motorbike driver was not in front of him right now. He is clearly one of those guys who is just very strong at the moment, when most others are running on empty. He didn't fall heavily and didn't need any medical attention and is sure to be fired up to make up for that tomorrow. He could be a break pick again. Bob Jungels is in my fantasy cycling team and I was very impressed with him today - he left a lot of guys behind him and looked strong all the way. His team-mates are sure he will win a big race sometime soon, and this long climb will suit his big engine, he could be another to try in the break.
Paddy Power were first up with their prices tonight, they found it hard to split Froome and Quintana too, with Froome the 10/3 favourite and Quintana at 7/2. I've laid out my thoughts above, I think it will be between the two of them and I am hoping that Nairo can make a big move (or even a little move) and win this stage.
The two of them seem to be going the opposite way in recent days, Froome seems to be under pressure, Quintana seems to be getting stronger and the Movistar team are sure to have someone (or more) in the break of the day to help time trial with Nairo if he does make the move. I think he could go long and win, or even if Froome stays with him he'll attack and beat him at the finish, he just seems to have that extra bit of energy. I'm going in on Nairo, and a few small bets besides in case the break makes it.
Nairo Quintana - 4pts win at 7/2 with Skybet
0.1pts each-way on Bob Jungels at 250/1 with PaddyPower
0.25pts each-way on Jacob Fuglsang at 22/1 with bet365