The 2014 Tour de France pedals toward its final battleground. The Pyrénées loom, its snowy summits shrouded in clouds and mist, but the weight of the pending suffering weighs heavily over a race-weary peloton.
The battle for the maillot jaune has all but been decided in the Vosges and Alps, with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) tightening his stranglehold on the GC that he captured with steely panache in the cobblestones of stage 5. Nibali holds a commanding 4:37 lead to second-place Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). By all accounts, Nibali, who has been rock solid across all terrain, has to succumb to disaster to lose this Tour.
Behind Nibali’s ruthless reign, there remains the interesting battle for the final two podium spots. With pre-race favorites Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) both crashing out before the Alps, many riders lower down on the power rankings sense a chance of a lifetime to reach the Paris podium.
After Monday’s rest day, the peloton will tackle three climbing stages that will prove decisive for the general classification prior to Saturday’s pivotal 54-kilometer time trial.
“This Tour is a war of attrition,” said BMC Racing’s sporting manager Allan Peiper. “And the last three days of the Pyrénées, we’ll see who is worthy of the podium.”
The Pyrénées are, without a doubt, absolutely brutal this year. After a Tour already marked by intense racing, extreme weather, and harrowing roads, including cobblestones, the peloton is bracing for three days of suffering — and opportunity.
Tuesday’s stage 16 features five categorized climbs, finishing with the hors categorie ascent of Port de Balès, with a long descent to the finish line. Stage 17 features three Cat. 1 climbs before a summit finish on the hors categorie Pla d’Adet. Stage 18 tackles the infamous Col du Tourmalet before a summit finish atop the Hautacam, the final summit finish of this Tour. Friday’s stage 19 is a transition stage before the time trial from Bergerac to Périgueux.
Taking Nibali out of the equation, here’s how the GC shakes out between the five riders fighting for the remaining podium spots:
1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
2. Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at 0:13
3. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), at 0:29
4. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing), at 1:12
5. Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-LaMondiale), at 1:31
Adding to the drama, Bardet and Pinot are also dueling for the best young rider’s competition, while Bardet, Pinot, and Peraud are battling for the honor of top French rider — and, potentially, the highest-placed French rider since Thomas Voeckler’s fourth-place finish in 2011. It would also be France’s first podium since scandal-tainted Richard Virenque was second to Jan Ullrich in 1997.
(Also noteworthy: While Bardet is 23, and Pinot is 24, Peraud turned 37 in May.)
Based on previous TT performances, van Garderen, Valverde, and Peraud are likely to take significant time over Bardet and Pinot.
Van Garderen, who turns 26 in August, is the strongest TT rider in the podium contenders, though the question of who has the legs late in a grand tour is often a more decisive factor than TT technique in a late-race time trial. The American has finished in the top five of time trials at the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. He was seventh in the stage 19 time trial of the 2012 Tour de France, and he also took fourth at the 2012 world time trial championship.
It’s important to remember that Valverde is the current Spanish national TT champion, while Peraud, a silver medalist at the 2008 Olympic mountain bike race, was the French national TT champion in 2009.
And though he’s in the later years of his career, Peraud is enjoying his best road season since switching over from the mountain bike. He won Criterium International in March (placing fourth in the short 7km time trial), placed third overall at the extremely difficult Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), and finished fourth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico. During the final time trial of the 2013 Tour de France, Peraud famously crashed, on a collarbone that he’d fractured that morning in TT reconnaissance, while sitting ninth overall.
Saturday’s 54km course is hilly — there are four significant climbs on the course profile. All five men have proven to be on similar levels in the high mountains, but the all-important ability to pace those climbs will prove critical.
And then there is the question of fatigue. Valverde suffered on the Cat.1 climb to Risoul on Saturday and lost at least 30 seconds to all his rivals, though he cited a mechanical error with his derailleur as the culprit.
Of the five riders, based on previous performances, Bardet will likely struggle the most against the clock — not just against Pinot in the white jersey contest, but against all of his podium rivals.
“It’s a bit annoying that everyone is focusing on Pinot and me, because there’s also Valverde and van Garderen,” Bardet said. “I’m lucky because I have Jean-Christophe but there are three big Pyrenean stages to come, so we’ll see how that goes.”
However, because Bardet has a 1:18 advantage over Peraud, Ag2r has tactical cards to play.
“Bardet has the advantage of having another teammate on GC, so if [Peraud] gets up the road, [Bardet] can sit on and they can play off each other like that a little bit,” van Garderen said. “But my trump card is definitely going to be that time trial. If I can just stay close enough to them, I’m pretty confident I can move ahead. I would say if I’m within a minute of them then I have a chance.”
Pinot, who has a flare up of knee pain that’s pestered him all season, and Bardet are both very young compared to the more experienced Peraud. Both Pinot and Bardet know they need a big advantage going into the final time trial, so they might actually benefit from working together to try to gap their podium rivals before inevitably racing against one another.
Valverde and Peraud are the most experienced, but van Garderen, already racing in his fourth Tour, is certainly no neophyte. Van Garderen has shaken off four crashes and a chest infection to arrive to the final week with rising confidence and improving health. Valverde, meanwhile, knows this could be his last real shot at the podium, especially with teammate Nairo Quintana set to race the Tour next year.
Without attempting to predict time gaps, here is the likely finishing order of Saturday’s time trial between these five riders:
1. Tejay van Garderen (USA), BMC Racing
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Movistar
3. Jean-Christophe Peraud (France), Ag2r-La Mondiale
4. Thibaut Pinot (France), FDJ.fr
5. Romain Bardet (France), Ag2r-La Mondiale
Although it’s impossible to know what will happen in the Pyrenees, it’s likely that the battle for the podium will be between Valverde, van Garderen, and Peraud, while Pinot and Bardet will fight until the last possible moment for the best young rider’s jersey.
However, as this year’s race has reminded us, anything can happen, on any given day.