CHORGES, France (VN) — The Alpine valley town of Bourg d’Oisans has long marked the start of Alpe d’Huez showdowns, battles between climbers and GC men that can shape and reshape the Tour de France. But in Thursday’s stage 18, Bourg d’Oisans will mean something else for the peloton’s sprinters and rouleurs, its injured and tired: It will be a finish line of its own, and if they can reach it within shouting distance of the front group, with a little left in the tank, they just might survive the time cut on this brutal six-climb day. For these members of the grupetto, or “autobus” in the French lexicon, the sight of Bourg d’Oisans will bring a small sense of relief on a long and trying day.
The Tour will roll through Bourg d’Oisans as the stage makes its first of two climbs of the Alpe, with the short climb and treacherous descent of the Col de Sarenne in between. But three categorized climbs — two Cat. 2 and a Cat. 3 — before the first ascent of the Alpe might play a bigger role in who does, or doesn’t, make the time cut. The first, the 6.6-kilometer, 6.2-percent Col de Manse begins just 6km into the stage, and officials have stated that, for now at least, the standard formula for determining the cutoff remains in force. A fast start on the Manse, already used as the final climb for Tuesday’s stage into Gap, could wreak havoc on the non-climbers in the peloton.
Three-time green jersey and 12-time Tour stage winner Robbie McEwen, now a technical advisor to Orica-GreenEdge, is no stranger to the grupetto and sees a long day in store for those who are now in the position he once occupied.
“Most guys will be trying to get to Bourg d’Oisans at the foot of Alpe d’Huez. That’s kind of your natural sitting up point if you can get that far,” said McEwan, finger tapping the key spot in the route book. “If they go ballistic at the start, you’re going to have guys chasing all day. You’re at the tail end of the Tour, and a really hard start will blow guys straight out the back. They’ll be riding a full-day time trial just to make it. I know because I’ve done it myself a few times.”
McEwen sees the descent off the Manse as the first crunch point for those riding the stage simply to make the time limit.
“People will be absolutely going for it after the Col de Manse to get back in the bunch and get a free ride at least through the feed,” said McEwen. “Then, hopefully for the grupetto guys, the race has calmed down and they’re just riding tempo over the Ornon. Then the race will really explode at Bourg d’Oisans the first time through.”
The Col d’Ornon, a 5.1km, 6.7-percent Cat. 2 ascent that summits just 13km before the start of L’Alpe d’Huez, will likely see a surge over the top as riders try to get to the front for the fast descent to Bourg d’Oisans. The rain predicted for Thursday’s stage could exaggerate the effect. Riders dropped in the summit acceleration will face a frantic descent to regain a group before the race hits the village and starts the first ascent of the Alpe’s 21 famed switchbacks. If they can make it there in a big enough group, they will breathe a small sigh of relief.
“They won’t even try to follow; they get to there, and they’re like, ‘ok, we’re safe,’” said McEwen. “They’ll ride Alpe d’Huez at their own pace, descend, then cruise up again. It’s still fast. People don’t realize how fast the grupetto is, but that’ll be the thing. They’re all going to know: get to Bourg d’Oisans and you’re safe.”
As always, cooperation among riders and teams will be key to achieving the grupetto’s common goal — making the time limit. But according to Rolf Aldag, a Tour veteran now in management for Omega Pharma-Quick Step, the collegial spirit in the grupetto isn’t what is used to be.
“The grupetto has changed a bit,” said Aldag. “Back when I was racing, everyone was more respectful. We’d work together to make the time cut. Today, riders are attacking the grupetto, trying to drop some riders who are in trouble.”
For McEwen, the issue comes down lack of leadership in the grupetto, a problem that could worsen when his countryman and former rival, Stuart O’Grady (Orica), finally retires. O’Grady, a veteran of 17 Tours, has become the unofficial captain of the grupetto, making sure the tempo stays high enough to avoid the time cut, but steady enough to preserve as many riders as possible.
“I can imagine stuff like that goes on,” McEwen said of Aldag’s concerns. “I suppose maybe they’re missing an authority figure in the grupetto. Some of the experienced guys aren’t there anymore. At least you’ve still got Stuey O’Grady, but the last couple of days he’s been in front of it, got dropped later in the stage and wasn’t in the grupetto. It’s all right when you’ve got some old hands, some experienced guys to keep things under control, keep a rein on certain people, then it all turns out good. They’ll be ok.”
There will be a lot of riders hoping they’ll be ok on Thursday at the 100th Tour de France.