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WHAT’S AHEAD AT THE TOUR–PHASE 6: ALPS OF PROVENCE

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July 20, 2015 – What’s more extraordinary than the abuse (verbal and otherwise) being experienced by Tour de France leader Chris Froome is his continued calm demeanor.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

Whether it’s the media’s ad nauseam innuendo that his climbing performances are suspect, a cup of urine being thrown in his face or his Sky teammates being the hit by punches or spittle, Froome remains a well-spoken, well-behaved, well-mannered gentleman.

And once on his bike he rides like a demon, continuing to show the impressive form that he’s retained (and improved upon) since twice getting the better of Tejay van Garderen to win the Critérium du Dauphine last month.

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So we can expect more of the same from the 2013 Tour champion when this year’s race hits the first steep climbs of the Alps—starting with a little hors d’oeuvre this Monday afternoon in Gap. And after the Tour’s second rest day there, the incursion into the Alps of Provence continues with a potentially decisive stage to Pra-Loup on Wednesday.

Stage 16 (July 20): Bourg-de-Péage–Gap 201km

A long-distance breakaway is sure to develop in the opening half of this deceptive 201-kilometer stage 16 through alpine foothills [and that has already happened, with the tactically smart Movistar team of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde putting a teammate in the break]. If Imanol Erviti is strong enough to stay in the break all day he could be ready to drop back to help his leaders on the final climb—which is a most unusual one.

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2015 tour de france imanol erviti movistar

The Col de Manse starts in the streets of Gap, at the beginning of a 21-kilometer loop to the finish. Unlike previous years, the organizers have found a much steeper opening to the Manse climb, diverting from the N85 highway, the Route Napoleon, to take a kilometer-long section of double-digit grades. With a rest day coming up, Quintana and Valverde can use all their strength and climbing skills to attack Froome (and perhaps gain time on the other close contenders, van Garderen of BMC Racing and Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo).

The course then continues for 1.5 kilometers on the steepest section of the N85, with likely cross winds, before turning right and getting a three-quarter tailwind on the flatter final 5 kilometers of the climb (where Contador made a successful attack four years ago). Having a teammate to help pace such an attack would be a big help here for Movistar, especially if Froome has shed his perpetual watchdogs, Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas.

Even more dangerous for those trying to catch back is the very steep, technical descent from the Manse summit back to Gap—where Joseba Beloki had his spectacular crash in 2003 and where Andy Schleck lost almost a minute to Cadel Evans (and Contador) in 2011.

SCHLECK-Andy046p_2011TDF

Gap has seen more than 20 Tour finishes, including one of its most exciting stages, in 1958. The day after Charly Gaul won a time trial up Mont Ventoux to challenge for the yellow jersey, he was caught out by the French national team making a surprise mid-stage attack on a day of heat-wave temperatures (and it’s just as hot this year). Gaul didn’t do well in such weather and he lost 11 minutes to main rival, Raphaël Geminiani, who finished second on the Gap stage to tighten his grip on the yellow jersey. Two days later, Gaul made a long, solo break through the northern Alps on a day of cold rain to take more than 14 minutes from Geminiani and go on to win that Tour.

Rest day (July 21): Gap

With rain in the forecast, riders may not enjoy this second rest day as much as usual. And should Froome falter on Tuesday then there will be lots of buzz at the main contenders’ press conferences around Gap—especially as an important alpine stage is coming up.

Stage 17 (July 22): Digne-les-Bains–Pra Loup 161km
Dramatic events were a big feature of the 1975 Tour, none more so than on the mountain stage to Pra-Loup in the Alps of Provence—which sees the finish of this year’s stage 17. On July 13, 1975, following a rest day in Nice, where the race had traveled after a hilltop finish on the Puy de Dôme in central France, the race leader was Eddy Merckx, who was recovering from a kidney punch delivered by a spectator on that steep climb.

He had a 58-second lead over second-place Bernard Thévenet, but the Cannibal wanted to add to that margin on this first alpine stage, from Nice over four stiff ascents before the final short climb to Pra-Loup. Merckx attacked solo on the 16-kilometer descent from the last of the major climbs, the Col d’Allos, and looked set to win the stage; but shortly after starting the 6.2-kilometer, 6.5-percent climb to Pra-Loup, Merckx suffered a rare hunger knock.

He was passed by four rivals, with Thévenet winning the stage and taking the overall lead—by 58 seconds over Merckx. That day would prove to be the record 111th and final time that Merckx wore the Tour’s yellow jersey.

What can we expect at Pra-Loup this year? The yellow jersey is again in play so expect some drama over the day’s highest climb, the Col d’Allos, whose gentle 6-percent grades will establish a pecking order before its fast, technical and potentially dangerous downhill. When this same course was raced in the recent Dauphiné, French climber Romain Bardet made a bold attack over the Allos summit and gained big time on the rapid run down to the valley.

romain bardet 2015 criterium du dauphine stage 5 five ag2r la mondiale climb

He held on to win the stage, while Froome and van Garderen duked it out behind, dropping all the other leaders, including Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali. Maybe something similar will happen this Wednesday or will the top contenders be content to reserve their strength for the tougher-looking stages to come? But, as happened 40 years ago, the heat, combined with a possible rainstorm and Pra-Loup’s dramatic history, might make this finale one of the surprises of 2015.

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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson