When Saturday July 18
Impact on overall: 3/5
Where are we?
We continue from where we left off the day before — Rodez — and head on a circuitous route east to Mende, in the northern end of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, of which Montpellier is the capital. Mende sits slap-bang in the middle of Montpellier to the south, and the capital of the Auvergne region, Clermont-Ferrand, to the north.
And what a beautiful part of France this is, with the greenness of the Massif Central and the heat and humidity of the south, with the shores of the Mediterranean not far away. But the Tour de France is no holiday if you’re a rider, and, with the Alps on the horizon, the peloton’s thoughts will have turned to what still faces them on the route.
What’s on the route?
It’s another up-and-down kind of day, with the 178.5km route taking in the gorgeous Gorges du Tarn, which will do their level best to distract the peloton.
But all eyes will be fixed on the final four kilometres and the climb of the Côte de la Croix Neuve, or La Montée Laurent Jalabert, as it’s known locally, which boasts an average gradient of 10 per cent, with sections of up to 13 per cent.
The climb itself feels very desolate — in a good way. Just down below to your left is Mende itself, which is the official finish town, though the finish line is up on top of the climb, next to an airfield, where silent gliders add to the sense that, up here, you’re blissfully away from the hubbub of town life.
It’s the kind of climb that, fresh out of Mende at the bottom, you’d have no great difficulty on. But coming at race pace after 170km — and another two weeks’ worth of racing beforehand — it’s a very tough, selective climb, which will find out anyone who was hoping for an ‘easy’ day.
Leisure riders visiting the area can obtain a card from the tourist information office in Mende, which is stamped at the bottom of the climb, and stamped again at the top to record your time and supply you with a souvenir of your effort.
The Croix Neuve may only be a short(ish) and sharp climb at the end of the stage, but if you wanted to employ the French term moyenne montagne — ‘medium mountain’ — for anything, then this is the climb to use it for. It’s also a semi-regular on the route of Paris-Nice, and used to feature in the now defunct Midi Libre stage race, so there’ll be plenty of riders in the bunch who’ll know exactly what to expect — and just how hard it will hurt — after two weeks of tough racing.
The bigger teams may try to use most of this stage to rest and recuperate as much as they can, which may mean allowing a breakaway to form early on. They may even be content to let the break stay away — there is no need to chase if there’s no one dangerous up the road — as then their team leaders will be able to save their energy to just watch each other on the final climb and ensure that no one tries to steal a march. Which hopefully they will.