In the past, when there has been a Tour de France stage from Pau to Luchon, crossing four major mountain passes, it’s usually been early in the second week when the general classification is in flux and riders are still relatively fresh. That’s not the case this year this Wednesday’s stage 16 because the organizers made some twists in their clockwise loop around France, so for the first time, this critical Pyrenean crossing will be raced in its tougher west-to-east direction near the end of the Tour. They’ll climb the longer, harder western sides of the hors-cat Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet before hitting the lower, but still challenging, category-one climbs of the Aspin and Peyresourde.
And with only five days of racing left, the peloton is on the point of rupture. Many riders are suffering from fatigue or debilitated by crash-induced injuries, and valley temperatures in the high 80s are in the forecast, making the stage even more demanding. These are the ingredients for many more riders being added to the already long list of 42 who’ve pulled out of this Tour. There are also those who are getting stronger in this third week, including defending champion Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and third-placed Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. But whether this pair will be able to get away from race leaders Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome of Team Sky and combine forces with strong breakaway riders is another matter.
Among those strong riders looking for a stage win on Wednesday could well be Irishman Dan Martin of Garmin-Sharp, Spaniard Egoï Martinez of Euskaltel-Euskadi and Belgian Maxime Monfort of RadioShack-Nissan. Why those three? Well, in the past 45 Tours, there have been five stages starting in Pau and finishing in Luchon. And all of them have been won by riders whose names begin with the letter M: an Italian, Marcello Mugnaini, in 1966; Eddy Merckx in 1972; French climber Raymond Martin in 1980; Scotsman Robert Millar in 1983; and Italian Rodolfo Massi in 1998. If I were a betting man, I would put some money on one the 12 “M” riders still in this Tour. The best hopes are Martin, Martinez and Monfort because they are all reasonable climbers and not dangerous on GC. If nothing else, it will be fun to see how they fare!
Regarding stages run on the same course as Wednesday’s, taking in the Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde, there have been just three, in 1980, ’83 and ’98. Compared with this year’s stage 16 and its 197-kilometer course, there were slight differences in the earlier stages due to longer or shorter neutralized starts and modifications in road alignments. But all of them had the same amount of climbing, around about 5,000 meters, or 16,400 feet.
As for the speeds of these previous Pau-Luchon stages, they averaged 31.027 kph in 1980, 31.451 kph in 1983 and 33.717 in 1998. And when a reverse of this stage was held in 2010, with the starting town of Luchon almost 1,500 feet higher than the finish town of Pau, and the east to west route climbing the easier sides of the Tourmalet and Aubisque, the speed was a much faster 36.085 kph. Among the reasons for the increased speeds over the past three decades are lighter bikes, smoother road surfaces, and a far more competitive field of better-trained athletes (only 13 teams in 1980 compared with 21 teams in 1998…and 22 teams this year).
Readers often ask how the speeds of pro races compare with those of average amateur or gran fondo rides. Well, more than 5,000 riders took part in this year’s L’Étape du Tour, which was held last week over the same Pau-Luchon course the pros ride on Wednesday. The first finisher was 36-year-old French triathlete Nicolas Roux, who completed the 197-kilometer trip through the Pyrénées in 6:44:27 at an average speed of 29.224 kph. If the Tour stage on Wednesday is run off at a likely 34 kph, the winning time will be around 5:45:00, just about an hour faster than the best amateur!
Whether this Pau-Luchon stage will have a major effect on the current standings is doubtful, but it may well make the Sky team riders work harder than they have already worked, and that could make for an even more interesting stage on Thursday. I will look at these factors in my next column and show how riders in previous Tours have come from behind in the Pyrénées, just as Evans, Nibali and Jurgen Van den Broeck will be trying to do on Wednesday.