It's the best week of the year, bar none, if you're a fan of stage racing. The Tour de France is at its business end and there's a lot to look forward to
Sure, it’s been hard racing in the last two weeks, but Chris Froome and Team Sky have had a pretty simple ride in defending the yellow jersey. Basically they just sit on the front of the peloton all day and everyone sits behind them.
We did see Quintana try a few moves on Mont Ventoux, but he was soon out of puff and dropped by Froome on the higher slopes until motorbike-gate.
There are two summit finishes in the next three stages, so someone will have to start making a move pretty soon. Quintana left it until the penultimate stage last year to make his best move and fell well short of dethroning Froome.
Hopefully he’ll learn from that mistake and get a move on when the race climbs to Finhaut Emosson on Wednesday.
A brand new climb
It’s pretty strange how the Tour de France route organisers have just found this 12km hors categorie climb that the race has never ridden up before, but we’re very excited to see what it’s like.
If a mountain hasn’t been climbed in 103 years of the Tour de France it’s likely there’s a very good reason for it. But it’s unlikely that the Montée de Bisanne is unpaved, brutally steep or home to a sleuth of man-eating bears.
In reality it’s a pretty well populated ski village at the top and if Google Maps is anything to go by it’s pretty stunning.
It could play a vital role in the Tour as well, featuring in the second half of a short stage to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, which could lead to some exhilarating racing.
A mountain time trial
Cycling Weekly‘s time trial expert Michael ‘Dr Hutch’ Hutchinson says that the uphill time trial might not actually be that decisive in the race, but we’re choosing to blissfully ignore that.
Yes, the mountain’s not that hard. Yes, it starts with a four kilometre flat bit. And yes, after the first two kilometres of climbing it’s not actually that steep.
But it’s a mountain time trial! We’re brought up on the notion that these kind of stages are make-or-break in big races like the Tour de France.
Hutch believes that the main GC contenders will only be separated by 20 to 30 seconds on the climb, but that could be enough to really shake up the yellow jersey competition.
If nothing else, the stage will give us a chance to get a good look at the town of Megève, where the stage finishes. Rarely has a town been so visited in one edition of the Tour – we go there three times this year in three consecutive stages!
Stage 18 finishes there, stage 19 passes through on the way to Mont Blanc and stage 20 starts there. ASO must have found a great hotel to stay at and a really good wine list at a local restaurant.
The Col de Joux Plane
Under 12 kilometres in length and an average gradient of 8.5 per cent – the stats don’t really do the Col de Joux Plane justice.
It’s not the longest mountain climb in the race and it’s not unbelievably steep, but it is a Tour de France giant killer. And there was no bigger giant to almost kill in recent years than Lance Armstrong, who famously blew up on the mountain in 2000.
The thing about Joux Plane is that it starts off incredibly hard, with a 10 per cent gradient straight off the bat out of Samoëns, and then it never really lets up.
As an amateur cyclist, looking at the kilometre markers at the side of the road you get a bit demoralised when the final six kilometres read gradients of nine and 10 per cent and the five preceding that don’t offer any presents either.
The ascent is tough, but it could all come down to the descent to the finish line in Morzine when it comes to deciding the yellow jersey. Nairo Quintana won a stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné that had virtually the same finale in 2012, so he’ll know exactly what it’s all about.
Finally getting to Paris
From the start of the Tour de France, all we hear from cyclists is that “it’s a long way to Paris”, but come Sunday afternoon all that nonsense stops and we actually arrive in Paris.
For the sprinters it’s one final treat to look forward too after slogging it over the final mountain passes, and for the yellow jersey holder it’s a chance to sip champagne while on your bike and trundle towards the Champs-Élysées.
Hundreds of riders racing towards the Arc de Triomphe is one of the most spectacular sights in cycling – odd, really, given how they’ve only recently left the jaw-dropping beauty of the Alps.
The sprint on the Champs is known as the sprinter’s world championships as it’s the one stage each year that every sprinter really wants to win. Wins in the other 20 stages are great too, but a win in Paris can be a career-changer.