The fight for the yellow jersey gets underway on stage six of the Tour de France, as the peloton face the daunting Planche des Belles Filles climb.
At 7.3 kilometres long, the ascent is far from the longest of this year’s Tour, but with a constantly shifting gradients and some devilishly steep sections the climb is expected to shake up the general classification race.
The stage is by far the toughest so far, with a relentless mountain parcours and seven categorised climbs, as this year’s ascent of La Planche Des Belles Filles also features a twist – an added kilometre of gravel roads that will take riders to the summit for the first time.
But how are teams viewing the climb?
“I think some of the riders will be a little bit nervous,” said Team Ineos sports director Nicolas Portal before the stage. “They’ll be feeling that if the stage doesn’t go well for them it will be catastrophic. All of the guys who are looking at the GC will want to be ready and able to respond.”
Team Ineos will have fond memories of this stage from 2012 when, racing under the Sky Procycling banner, Chris Froome won the stage and Bradley Wiggins secured the yellow jersey he would hold all the way to Paris.
After that Tour de France debut for the climb it has appeared twice more, in 2014 and 2017, and on each occasion the rider in yellow at the end of the stage has gone on to win the race overall.
But Ineos are not attaching the same significance to the climb in the Tour de France 2019, according to Portal.
“I think La Planche des Belles Filles is coming too soon to make a real difference,” the Frenchman added.
“The riders know that and the guys who are focusing on the GC know that but they also know that the first mountain stage can sometimes be hard on the legs, particularly one like this when the terrain is quite punchy, and if they can’t respond in the way that they want to they can lose time.”
Mitchelton-Scott’s sole leader Adam Yates may be a rider with ambitions on the road.
“It’s the first big test for the GC guys,” the Brit said looking ahead to the stage.
“So I think the GC guys will be looking forward to it.
“It’s a steep climb but it’s also quite a short one – it’s 20 minutes odd. It’s a climb that suits me. I don’t know the gravel section at the end but I think that’s going to be the same for a lot of people.”
At the start of the stage, Deceuninck – Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe held the race lead by 25 seconds over the next GC favourite Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), and around 40 seconds over Team Ineos leaders Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas.
Portal said the Ineos were open to the idea of taking the jersey this early in the race: “The idea for us is not necessarily to win, but to reassure ourselves, but if we can score a few points against our rivals that’s even better. It wouldn’t concern us if the yellow jersey came our way. We’ve got used to having it since 2012.
“When you’re used to looking after this jersey, it really gives you a lot of strength, more ability to move within the peloton and lots of respect too.”
On who could be the protagonists, Portal said: “The last descent is pretty steep, especially in one section, and that could be the point where guys who have lost a little bit of time in the GC, the likes of Mike Landa (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) will try something.
“Those guys are really dangerous, so we have to be a little careful by keeping an eye on them.”
But there is one name that both Portal and Adam Yates agreed is a serious threat – Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, who lives nearby and trains on the climb.
When asked who he was watching most closely, Yates said: “Today it’s going to be Pinot. He’s from the area.
“For me he’s the big favourite. I’m sure he wants to do something.”
Portal said: “Pinot will be on his home roads, he showed two days ago that he’s very, very strong and he’s said he would like to do well.”
The burning debate for Team Ineos fans has been the co-leadership of Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas, with the young Colombian leading the reigning Tour champion by five seconds at the start of the day.
On whether stage six could separate the pair further, Portal said: “I don’t think what happens tomorrow will have much impact on deciding who might be the leader in our team, unless something dramatic occurs.
“Above all the main thing for us is to take a good step forwards, to not lose any time and if we can take some time then that really is a big bonus.”