MONTPELLIER, France (VN) — They have labored over the lumpy Corsican profiles and survived a drag race to the sea. The flats are nearly over for now, and for the Tour de France’s general classification, the teeth of the Pyrénées will soon tear the results sheet apart.
And it starts Saturday, on the road to the Col de Pailhères.
Most of the top general classification contenders (save Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, fourth last year at the Tour, abandoned) have made it through a difficult first week intact, and will begin to scrap for wins of their own, sprinters forced to wait until the roads pancake again after Monday’s first rest day.
“It’s the same old story. Always the first the mountain stage, those who are a little bit weak maybe get found out, you know? It’s different this year, I think, from other years because we haven’t had 10, 11, 12 days of 70-kilometer sprints and super long flat stages in the north of France,” said Garmin-Sharp director Charly Wegelius.
Two mountain stages loom: The 195km day from Casters to the top of Ax 3 Domaines on Saturday, and Sunday’s stage from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, featuring five passes (one Cat. 2 climb and four Cat. 1 climbs).
Sky and Chris Froome have, thus far, ridden a smooth Tour de France, save for Geraint Thomas’ and Ian Stannard’s injuries in the late stage 1 crash, though both are still in the race. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) is just six seconds in arrears of Froome and his lieutenant Richie Porte. Garmin’s cluster of all-rounders (Andrew Talansky, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin) are just 14 seconds back of Sky’s GC threats. The BMC Racing duo of Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen are at 23 seconds and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) is a further three seconds back.
But being close and waiting for a mistake won’t be enough. As evidenced last year, if no teams truly take the fight to Sky, the British super squad will grind away to July glory, and ride contenders into the chalk dust on the mountain roads.
On Saturday, the Col de Pailhères comes at 166 kilometers into the stage, and ascends to 2,001 meters. It does that in 15.3 kilometers, at an average of eight-percent gradient. The final climb, Ax-3-Domaines, is shorter, but should see more damage inflicted on the results sheet. Last year, a dominant Sky team used the first uphill finish, at La Planche des Belles Filles, to strangle the race early, and establish a tone it would keep singing over the next two weeks — the refrain of Bradley Wiggins’ winning song.
Wegelius said there were two ways of playing the race: ride not to lose, or ride daringly, risking much: “There’s two ways of facing the race, where you have a super, top favorite, like Chris Froome. You can either play it conservatively and hope to get a good placing. Or, in the face of that, you have to choose to be more aggressive than you normally would be.”
He likely speaks for most teams with such tactical thought: no one can afford to let a metronomic Sky team sit on the front too long.
On Sunday, the Peyresourde (13.2km at seven percent) and La Hourquette d’Ancizan are on the menu, two of five rated climbs. The stage finishes with a descent into Bagnères-de-Bigorre.
Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) said he was feeling as strong as he had all season, and only hoped to make it to the weekend without losing any time to see what the peaks had in store.
“So far, I’m feeling pretty good,” he said before Thursday’s stage. “I hope we can keep it like this, and then I have to see myself where I am standing on the long climbs.”
Schleck said he expected the bunch to thin down Saturday significantly more so than on Sunday’s technically harder, but more up and down, parcours.
“Aix-3-Domains is the big showdown,” he said. On Sky, the Luxembourger said the he thought the team was beatable.
“I don’t think they’re too strong. They’re beatable,” he said. Asked how he would do it, he was quick to point to others. “Not necessarily me … I believe Katusha’s strong. Saxo Bank is also really strong. It’s a long journey to Paris, and it’s not only about Sky.”
Garmin’s Daniel Martin, fostering GC hopes in his own right, said he wasn’t looking forward just yet.
“I’m still taking it day by day. Just take care of today, and the weekend will look after itself. I’ll be happier when I get there, though,” he said of the mountains. “I don’t think fitness is a question. It’s just losing time before the mountains … it’s about getting there in one piece, no injury.”
The Sky riddle was unsolvable last year in what amounted to a French victory lap. This year is yet to be written, though that story will start this weekend. Asked how he planned on beating the best stage-race team in the world, Wegelius was coy.
“You think I’m going to tell you that?” he asked. “But you had to ask, didn’t you?”