Bagneres-de-Luchon — Peyragudes (89.2 miles/143.5km)
Thursday 19 July
This year’s Tour is certainly not lacking in suspense, with several opportunities to chip away at the general classification leaders late in the race. As if it hadn’t already, today is the day the race gets sticky. This is the queen stage.
Much like the day before, organizers did not intend for there to be much time for chit-chat between the start and the first of the stage’s five categorized climbs. The Cat. 1 Col de Menté (9.3km at 9.1 percent) begins ticking upward 17km into the stage. The Col des Ares (6km at 5.3 percent) and Côte de Burs (1.2km at 7.6 percent) serve as intermediate courses ahead of the hors catégorie Port de Balès and the new finish climb at Peyragudes via the Peyresourde.
The summit of the Port de Balès (11.7km at 7.7 percent) comes 31km from the finish. Those 31 ticks are filled with a dangerous descent to the valley floor and the 15.4km, 5.1-percent march to the line. This is unknown territory for a number of riders, as the Port de Balès has only featured twice in previous Tours. The upper reaches of the climb to the Plateau de Peyragudes will be new to nearly every man in the race — other than those who took part in the 2010 Route du Sud. A number of teams have ridden the climb in recent weeks, but few have faced it with a win on the line. David Moncutié (Cofidis) took the 2010 Route du Sud time trial here, in 33:07, but overall contender Juanjo Cobo (Movistar) was 28th. Depending on how the GC sits with his teammate Alejandro Valverde, Cobo could very well look to turn that ride into a stage win and podium this go around.
The final, 53.5km time trial looms over the race and this is the last opportunity for the climbers to make a dent in the overall before they hit Bonneval in two days’ time. Watch for desperate, long-range attacks from rail-thin riders off the pace, but if recent history is a guide, much of the day’s selection will come at the back of the leaders’ group. Question marks abound over whether Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) can go this deep into the Tour. Will Bradley Wiggins (Sky) crack after being on such strong form since March? Or, will today be early crowning of a presumptive Tour winner like Denis Menchov (Katusha), who can go with the sharp attacks and time trial when it matters? Many answers will come on this final day in the mountains.
Bagnères-de-Luchon has hosted 51 Tour stages, including a stage for the ages in 1969, when a 24-year-old Tour de France rookie, Eddy Merckx, went solo off the front for 140km in the yellow jersey over the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque to Mourenx, winning with nearly an eight-minute lead. After his win, Merckx said, “I hope that now I have done enough for you to consider me as a worthy winner.” The stage finishes in Peyragudes, which, on the other hand, hosts its first stage of the Tour de France this year.