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The organisers have thrown in two very short, but brutally hard stages right at the end of the race, I guess with the intention of trying to make two wildly exciting days of attacking that could have decided the outcome to the race. I suspect they were hoping that Froome didn't have such a considerable lead and that the Fab 5 were all pretty close to each other in the GC, making for a battle royale up the Alpe.
It's still possible of course that we get a big shake up in the GC on this final day, we saw a chink of weakness in Froome today when Quintana stole 32" back to now leave him 2'38" behind Froome. It was massively frustrating today to see him skip away from Froome like I expected, he should have won the stage. But yet again on this stage I we have been denied a decent winner by one rider going up the road and beating us. I've had more seconds than Peter Sagan and it's really bloody annoying!
Momentum has swung for sure in Quintana's direction, but it will be a very big ask to take that much time off of Froome. He will not take it on the Alpe alone, he will have to go on the Croix de Fer and risk it all on the descent to take a minute lead or more in to the bottom of the Alpe. If he does that and Froome is cracking behind, he could take enough time to win. But of course we saw a few years ago how he had a bad moment on the Alpe when Richie Porte went back to the car to get him something like an energy gel, so you'd never know. He looked in big trouble at that point.
The stage is a short hop from Modane to the Alpe, just 110kms. If it was a flat route, they'd do it in less than 2 1/2 hours. But it is anything but flat of course! There was a last minute change to the route in June of course, due to landslides on the Galibier, which was originally part of the route, preceeded by the Telegraph before going on to Alped'Huez. Instead, they will now stay in the Maurienne valley a little longer and descend for 25kms from the start instead of the originally planned 13.5kms.
They start the day by descending for 25kms to Saint Jean de Maurienne, which should make for a brutally fast start to the day, as every guy with any bit of energy or ambition left will want to try to get in the break of the day, that *might* make it to the Alpe in the lead at least. Some may get up the road, but it's likely that further moves will be coming and going for about the first hour as they start on the not too inconsiderable obstacle of the Col de La Croix de Fer.
The climb to the summit in it's entirety is a huge 31kms long, but it goes up in three waves. The first 5kms average 5.9%, with a kilometre at 9.8% until they reach La Bettaz, where the last kilometre flattens out to just 3%, and then there's a little descent for 1km. The second wave is the hardest part of the climb, averaging 8.8% for 6kms, hitting double digits in parts. This is probably where someone who wants to go long and try to take a lot of time (that's you Nairo!) could attack and try to get a gap. But they'll have to go really hard and get a decent gap as once they pass the 12kms mark on the climb it eases off considerably for a while, descending and going along a plateau for 4kms through the Grand Tunnel..
The final wave is the longest at 13kms long, and comes in two parts more or less as well. The first 7kms are far easier than the last 6kms, with the first 7 averaging just 4.1%, the second part averaging 7.6%, almost twice as steep as the first part. The official stats for the climb are 29kms at 5.2%, but it's an irregular climb and some guyswiill really struggle on the last 6kms which start from Saint Sorlind'Arves. They crest the top with just just 54kms to the finish, 28kms of which are descending off the Croix de Fer.
They reach Allemont after 84.5kms and spend around 12kms in the valley before they tackle the famous Alped'Huez. 13.8kms at an average of 8.1%, it's a proper beast and one of the most iconic 'venues' for a sporting event in the world. It's a fantastic end to any stage, a terribly hard climb that will separate the men from the boys. The first 11kms are the hardest, averaging 8.3%, with sections regularly in the 9-11% area, with the first 2kms alone averaging 10.2%. The rest is quite steady as they weave through the enormous crowds and the 21 switchbacks, and as they approach the easier last 2.8kms it really kicks up, averaging 10.2% as they head towards Turn no.1. The finish is usually contested by only 1, 2 or not many more riders, so fighting for the right line in to that last left hander with 220m to go probably isn't something they will need to worry about.
It has to be between two men doesn't it? Nairo looks a certainty to beat Froome again tomorrow given how today's stage went, he clearly has the upper hand now as I had been saying.. He is getting stronger while Froome is looking tired. Still, how amazing a rider is Froome that even when he looks beaten up and attacked from all angles, including from a***holes at the side of the road, he still put 1'12" in to the likes of Valverde, Contador and Pinot in less than 5kms. But Quintana was better, and will be even better tomorrow on a climb that he says suits him very well. It has been his dream for a long time to win this stage so he'll be going flat out for the win tomorrow.
It's a short stage so it might be a bit easier to keep the break under control, something they will have to do if Froome and Quintana fancy a stage win. There are a lot of tired bodies out there now, but a lot of guys (and their DS's) will be desperate for one last crack at a stage win.
So who wins? Well, I was really disappointed with Quintana today leaving it so late and also to have been beaten by Nibali who pulled a sneaky move attacking while Froome had a mechanical. He can say what he likes but it was clear as day he looked, looked again and only when Froome was pulling over to the side of the road did he then attack. But as Michael Rasmussen said in Twitter tonight, 'It's a battlefield - not a sewing room!" If Nibali was still in the group of favourites when he attacked I don't think he'd have been able to go with Nairo either, so the stage should have been Quintana's.
I think he wins. I think he will go earlier this time in an attempt to take as much time as possible, he needs to leave it all on the road, no regrets. He says he is up for it, and said he tried his best today:
"We did what we could and Froome is very strong. At least we’ve tried. I’ll try again tomorrow from further out, let’s see how strong he is then. We’ll try for the stage win at least. The last 5km seemed to be the most appropriate because the rhythm set by Tinkoff was very high. I've missed the final touch. Tomorrow it'll be all or nothing. We'll also try to keep Alejandro Valverde on the podium."
So he has said he'll try again and from further out this time, let's see. The worry I have is that he goes from far out, but it doesn't work out and he blows his chances of a stage win. But I think he has the strength and the power to go and stay away. Whether he can take 2'29" is a different matter altogether, it would be miraculous and bloody brilliant, but it's unlikely. Well actually according to Betfair, it's a 10/1 shot, so it's not beyond the realms of possibility.
Froome of course could find a little something extra tomorrow, it's the last mountain stage, it's the big mountain stage and he has said he wants to win on the Alpe in the yellow jersey. And he is sure to be the only one to throw it down to Quintana and try to chase him down. The only question in my mind to stop them is if they mess around too much on the Croix de Fer, and possibly let a break get too much of a lead that they cannot pull back in time, like with Nibali today.
Joaquim Rodriguez, Romain Bardet and Froome are in a 3-way battle for the Polka dots jersey, so expect to see these guys in the break, along with the usual suspects again like Kruiswijk, Fuglsang, Gautier, Pauwels, Plaza and Barta. Froome is in the driving seat though for the KOM jersey, he doesn't need to chase points mid-stage, but if Bardet takes the max 25pts at the top of the CDF, and Froome doesn't score any points, Bardet can finish in 8th on the summit and take the jersey.
If Froome comes 2nd to Quintana on the climb, Bardet only has to finish 5th, but if Froome wins the stage, Bardet needs to finish in 5th on the stage. It's a really hard one to call that, but with the battle for the points in the middle of the stage and the battle at the end for high placings on the final mountain finish, you'd have to say Froome is probably going to be taking home the spots jersey as well.
It's decision time then. I can't get away from thinking Quintana will have the final say in terms of a stage win and will do his best to close the gap. I really hope he goes earlier this time and possibly with the assistance of a team-mate who was up the road in a break, really starts to pile on the seconds. It would just be a very exciting finish to the race. Froome should be good enough to finish second, so the 4/1 that was available on him was a decent each-way free shot at the win, he is pretty likely to get in to the top 3. The best price is 7/2 now though so it would mean a small loss if he comes 2nd or 3rd if you back him each-way.
So who chases them home for the 3rd place each-way money? There are some big priced guys outside the top two to try to pick from, but I'm leaning towards Nibali who is a big looking 16/1 and Sammy Sanchez, who seems to be getting better as the week goes on. Nibali had a tough stage today, but he is now clearly the best of the rest at the moment and may attack early again tomorrow, but this time Froome and Quintana may catch him before the finish and he could hold on for third. He is fighting a tired looking Valverde for 3rd place overall and that’s a huge motivation to go full gas. Sanchez has finished 2nd to Rolland in 2011 and 4th (or 2nd in the official books) in 2010 on the Alped'Huez stages, and with rain possibly affecting the stage, I'm giving him another go to try something tomorrow.
3pts win on Nairo Quintana at evens with Boylesports or Coral
0.2pts each-way on Sammy Sanchez at 80/1 with Boylesports
0.3pts each-way on Vincenzo Nibali at 16/1 with Boylesports