WorldTour races often start with an opening prologue or time trial: a test against the clock to sort out a preliminary order in the general classification before the opening road stage gets underway.
Usually they’re flat and less than 15km long, suiting powerful time trial specialists and rouleurs. However this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné has opted for something a little different: a 4km uphill mountain time trial, averaging 9.7 per cent.
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This could be the hardest, most influential opening day of a stage race in living memory.
More similar to a British RTTC hill-climb than an alpine ascent, the Mont Chéry climbs 375 vertical metres out of Les Gets, a ski resort an hour’s drive southeast of Geneva in the northern French Alps.
Rising almost straight up the valley side with a backdrop of the Mont Blanc massif, its average belies the fact that the middle two kilometres are closer to 15 per cent, with the hairpin bends (there are nine in total) pushing 25 per cent.
It’s a mad way to start a race. Course director Thierry Gouvenou admitted to Cycling Weekly with a smile on his face that “it could be a little bit intense.”
The Tinkoff team’s DS at the race, Steven De Jongh, had two words for the opening test: “bloody hard!”
“The first part is OK but then you come to that final 1200m or 1500m and it’s super, super steep,” he added. “Even the top ten riders on the stage are going to have big gaps between them.”
Mont Chéry is actually a French synonym for ‘mon chéri,’ which translates into English as ‘my darling.’ But in this case it’s not a term to be used affectionately. It’s more like Ray Winstone barking “alright darling” to another cockney gangster before punching him in the face.
It’s the sort of climb that has amateurs leg pressing their way to the top at a 30 rpm cadence, or even getting off and walking altogether. Fortunately for the peloton’s sprinters there is no time cut for the stage, meaning no riders will be eliminated.
Gouvenou added that the inspiration came from previous stages of the Dauphiné that have climbed the similarly short and steep climb up to the Bastille in Grenoble, the city that was home to the Dauphiné Libéré newspaper that formerly sponsored the race and gave it its name.
However with a challenge that is more than twice as long and arguably a lot harder, Gouvenou aims to “take the blinkers off the teams and the riders” with unusual stages such as these, “otherwise you just end up with the same scenarios and the same outcomes and it starts to get boring.”
Despite a generally positive response from the participants, time gaps between the top GC riders – including Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Thibaut Pinot and Fabio Aru – on Sunday night could stretch to over 60 seconds.
Any contender lacking those racing legs or that all important top-level punch will soon haemhorrage time on the steep ramps that characterise this narrow trickle of tarmac halfway up a ski slope.
Riders will no doubt be calling it all sorts of names on Sunday afternoon as they struggle up its slopes. But there is one thing that this opening stage is certainly not: boring.