Two Pyrenean summit finishes may look, on paper at least, the best places for Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) to reduce his deficit to Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) in the final week of the Tour de France, but one of the century's best descenders, Samuel Sánchez, believes that Pogačar can take back most time on stage 16 that finishes with a 28km descent.
Following a rest day in Carcassonne, the race resumes with a 178km stage to Foix, the fearsomely steep Mur de Péguère topping out less than 30km from the finishing town.
A technical descent follows until the finish, and former Spanish pro Sánchez - who finished second overall at the 2010 Tour and who was renowned for his daredevil descending - told Cycling Weekly that Pogačar can use the downhill to claw back time on Vingegaard.
"You can make a big difference on a descent - mucha, mucha, mucha, " he said, before referencing the possibility of thunderstorms later in the stage. "If it rains, even more."
The 2008 Olympic road race champion explained that having teammates in the breakaway will be crucial to those who have GC ambitions.
"Not just for Pogačar or Vingegaard, but anyone who wants to jump onto the podium or move up the GC, this is a stage when you need a teammate ahead," he continued.
"Why? Because after the Mur de Péguère there are 30kms remaining to the finish, and there's a long way to pedal still. At the beginning of the descent it's technical and there's a lot of pedalling to be done before Foix. It's not like a 30km descent you see on the Galibier or the Croix de la Fer.
"That's why it's going to be important to have a rider in front who can pull and take you forward. If you have one teammate ahead of you who can wait and then pull you for a few kilometres, you're going to be able to take time [on others]. I remember one year [in 2019] Mikel Landa attacked there, he had teammates ahead of him, and they helped him create a big gap.
"It will be a stage where we're going to see a lot of movement. If UAE, Jumbo or Movistar put a rider in the breakaway, it means there's going to be attacks on the Mur de Péguère from their riders, and [those in the break] will be there to work for their riders to increase their advantage."
The final three kilometres of the Péguère include ramps approaching 18 percent. Should Pogačar attack two kilometres from the summit? "That's sufficient," Sánchez responded. "Especially if Pogačar sets a good rhythm and has [Marc] Soler and [Rafa] Majka with him."
The stage is the only one in this year's Tour that finishes with a descent, and Sánchez added that the parcours could cause some teams to upgrade their bike set-ups. "When you attack full-gas descending and there's still a lot of riding left, you need to put a 54 [cassette on]."
Sánchez - who now runs his own junior team and has ambitions on developing a professional one in the future - predicted "three crazy stages in the Pyrenees.
"We're going to have a battle every day," he said. "If I was Pogačar and I have Vingegaard two minutes ahead of me, I have to attack him. I can't wait until the [stage 20] time trial.
"He has to try something every day if he has the strength and for sure he will try on the Mur de Péguère because it's a hard, narrow climb that suits him.
"We have seen it with Tom Pidcock on the Alpe d'Huez stage. He was the strongest rider that stage, but he made the difference through his descending. He took a minute [on the rest] and that's how he won the stage. It was a lesson in how to descend on the bike."
The composite of the breakaways in the coming days will largely be the same group of riders, Sánchez said, owing to the fatigue in the peloton. There's also a possibility that a rider lower down the GC could infiltrate the breakaway and move up, just like Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) did on stage 14 when he moved up to seventh overall.
Sánchez added: "The breakaways in the last week won't be full of riders who want to be there, but riders who can be there. It's a question of who has strength. This is the difference between the first and the last week in the Tour, and we're going to see the same riders in the breakaway.
"If [Movistar's Enric] Mas attacks - he's currently 10 minutes down [9-58 off Vingegaard - ed], and he gets to the line five or six minutes ahead of the peloton, he will be in the middle of the fight for the podium again."
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