There was an air of quiet confidence at the BMC Racing team’s hotel Tuesday night as they prepared for the next few, vital stages of the Tour de France. “We always have a team barbecue on the rest days of grand tours,” said team boss Jim Ochowicz, who wore an apron as he uncorked bottles of white and red Burgundy. The hotel, appropriately named the Hôtel des Grands Vins, was set on a hillside above bright-green vineyards sloping east toward the Saône River.
Also wearing a mechanic’s apron was team communications director Georges Lüchinger, who was grilling fat Swiss bratwurst with team chef Peter Cambre. Earlier in the day, Cambre, who once worked for touring rock bands, including The Boss, had averted a disaster. A short circuit in the electrical wiring of the team’s equipment truck, which contained BMC’s bikes, wheels and spares, caused a fire. Cambre spotted the smoke and, with quick presence of mind, used a fire extinguisher to put out the flames before they could spread.
With that scare behind him, team leader Cadel Evans joined his eight teammates and one or two wives and children at the family-style gathering, where Ochowicz gave a short talk and some of the riders sipped wine and sampled the sausage slices, chunks of Swiss cheese and hand-size pizzas. But their main meal was waiting inside.
Prior to the get-together, Evans and his brilliant young teammate Tejay Van Garderen, respectively second and eighth in the overall standings going into Wednesday’s stage 10, gave press conferences and media interviews. They both expressed confidence in the team’s chances for the upcoming three stages of the Tour that contain a total of 10 categorized climbs, including three of the highest, hors-cat rating: the Grand-Colombier on Wednesday and the Madeleine and Croix de Fer on Thursday.
There was no despondency in the BMC camp after Evans’ below-par ride in Monday’s time trial. When asked at the press conference whether his near-two-minute defeat by race leader Brad Wiggins of Sky was like a kick in the stomach, the defending Tour champion gave no indication of being upset. "I wouldn't say it was a punch in the stomach. It was one of the scenarios I had anticipated, both La Planche des Belles Filles and the time trial,” Evans said, referring to losing the uphill sprint to Sky’s Chris Froome on the Belles Filles stage 7 finish last Saturday and his defeat by Wiggins in the stage 9 time trial at Besançon.
Evans added, “We're really just at the midway point of the race here, and the second half…that's more my strength and consistency.” He indicated that one strategy was to key off the expected attacks by others in the top 10 who need to make up time in the mountains. Evans, 35, added that he’d also use his great experience to create his own openings.
“The reason why I love racing is because it's so exciting,” he said. “We don't know what's going to happen. I didn't write the script. I don't even know it.” But listening to his answers and seeing his quiet confidence and relaxed mood, it was clear that Evans is fired up for this Tour as it headed into the peaks of the Jura on Wednesday and into the high Alps on Thursday and Friday.
The first of these giants is the Col du Grand-Colombier, which is being included in the Tour for the first time. The actual side of the mountain being used Wednesday is not the steepest one, which was used regularly in the Tour de l’Avenir of the 1960s and ’70s. Even so, the version at this Tour is more than 18 kilometers long and has some stretches as steep as 12 percent.
Local French pro Mickaël Buffaz of Cofidis, who sometimes trains on the climb, told L’Équipe: “There aren’t many harder climbs in France. Besides the irregularity of the gradient [from 2 to 12 percent], there’s the eight kilometers [before the top], where you feel asphyxiated when it’s heavy and humid.”
Some say this Jurasian peak most resembles Mont Ventoux and others that it is as tough as L’Alpe d’Huez. So here’s a quick comparison:
Mont Ventoux: 22.7 km, climbing 1,622 meters at 7.1-percent, with steep pitch of 11 percent
Grand-Colombier: 18.3km, climbing 1,255 meters at 6.9-percent, with steep pitch of 12 percent
L’Alpe d’Huez: 13.9km climbing 1,119 meters at 8.1 percent, with steep pitch of 14 percent.
Despite its difficulty, the stage looked like being decided on the two descents that follow the summit, particularly the twistier one prior to the uphill finish in Bellegarde. As for Thursday’s stage in the Alps, the Madeleine and Croix de Fer will soften up the riders before they tackle two final climbs, including the 18-kilometer ascent to the summit finish in La Toussuire. Friday’s stage has two category 1 climbs, both very difficult. But they come in the first 80 kilometers of 226-kilometer stage, so won’t have much of an effect.
But in a Tour that has atypically structured mountain stages, no one really knows how things will pan out. There’s even a chance that Wiggins will surprise everyone and take advantage of any weakness shown by Evans or his other rivals. When that possibility was posed to Wiggins on Tuesday, he said, “You just never know in cycling. If there’s a chance where you could take some time, if someone has a bad day or it’s been hard, and the group’s splintering, and you feel like you could go, then, yeah, maybe I’ll take that [chance]. But it might be the opposite, you know? You just don’t know in cycling.”
That was a surprising answer from Wiggins, and one that sounds more like a comment by Evans. But wouldn’t it be fun to see both of them going on the attack, rather than just following their climbing trains? Then we’d see who truly is the strongest.
John will be commenting on stage 10 later Wednesday.