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WHAT’S AHEAD AT THE TOUR–PHASE 4: PYRÉNÉES

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July 14, 2015 – Since Chris Froome took over the Tour de France yellow jersey on the Mur de Huy a week ago, he has looked stronger and stronger. Even though he briefly lost the race lead to a valiant Tony Martin of Etixx-Quick Step, Froome and his impressive troops have looked almost impregnable.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

Their only sign of weakness was on Sunday, in the final 2 kilometers of the 28-kilometer team time trial in Brittany. After acing the middle section of the hilly course (where Nairo Quintana and his Movistar team lost their victory chance by leaving gaps that had to be closed, causing a slowdown), Team Sky was leading eventual winner BMC Racing by five seconds; and though Froome led most of the way up the 1.7-kilometer climb to the finish line at Plumelec, Sky conceded six seconds in that finale to BMC Racing (led for most of the climb by Tejay van Garderen.

These were the times up that last uphill section: 1. BMC, 3:32; 2. Movistar, 3:35; 3. Tinkoff-Saxo 3:35; 4. Sky, 3:38; 5. Astana, 3:40. They show that not only BMC, but also Movistar and Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff men were faster than the British squad. Of the Fabulous Four, only Vincenzo Nibali and his strongest four Astana teammates conceded time, but then just two seconds. Maybe these relative climbing strengths will be repeated in the high mountain stages that are all packed into the remaining 12 stages—starting in the Pyrénées.

Stage 10 (July 14): Tarbes–La Pierre St-Martin 167km
After turning their legs on short rest-day training rides and talking to the media, the 185 survivors of the Tour’s first half finally get to see why this is being called a climbers’ Tour. From the valley roads in the first 100 kilometers of stage 10 this Tuesday, they will be able turn to their left and see the long chain of Pyrenean snow peaks.

Those early rolling roads and a hot southern sun will likely enable a large early breakaway to form, but the team leaders won’t want the time gaps to grow too large knowing that a prestigious stage win (and the yellow jersey) will be on the line at day’s end. Because this is the Fourteenth of July, Bastille Day, the French climbers will be out to impress the crowds, with the most likely to succeed being Giant-Alpecin’s team leader Warren Barguil.

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A Tour stage has never finished at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, a ski station just above the Col de Soudet; but the Tour has passed this way three previous times. In 1995, to respect the death of Fabio Casartelli the previous day, the peloton rode up the Soudet at touring pace midway through the neutralized stage.

In 1996, the Soudet was the third of four climbs on a monster 262-kilometer slog to Pamplona, Spain, where a group of eight riders arrived eight minutes ahead of the next group. And in 2003, also on the final mountain stage, the Soudet saw the formation of a 12-strong breakaway group from which Tyler Hamilton later broke clear to score a solo win at Bayonne.

Those are the only times the Soudet has been climbed from the north side—and it’s a nasty climb! It first heads up a green valley before hitting a series of steep bends, with the second kilometer averaging a near-11-percent grade. After a short respite at 6 percent, the climb continue at 8-, 9- and 10-percent grades until kilometer 10—where the road evens out to gentler grades all the way to the summit 5 kilometers later. It will be a rude introduction to the high mountains, and as always happens there will be several top riders who come unstuck.

Will one man emerge at La Pierre-Saint-Martin as the clear dominator, like Nibali did last year at La Planche des Belles Filles, or will all the cards still be on the table? The chances are that race leader Froome, who’s on terrific form, will test out his opponents because he’d dearly like to increase his 12-second lead on van Garderen, add to his one-minute advantage on Contador and make sure that Quintana doesn’t get closer than the two minutes he lost in the opening nine stages.

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Quintana and Contador are the ones who have to attack—and whatever success they have will dictate what happens in the rest of the Tour.

Stage 11 (July 15): Pau–Cauterets 188km
Whether the race is more tightly grouped or Froome has a firm grip on yellow, stage 11 is most likely going to be one where the leaders mark each other and allow an early breakaway to succeed. There are 105 kilometers of riding before the day’s first climb, the Col d’Aspin, and though it’s followed by the long and challenging Col du Tourmalet, that peaks at more than 40 kilometers from the finish—though men such as Nibali and Alejandro Valverde will likely burn their way down the descent in attempts to gain back lost time.

The descending roads from the Tourmalet precede a final 10 kilometers up a valley road to Cauterets. This small mountain town has produced three solo stage winners over the years: Spaniards Jésus Loroño in 1953 and Miguel Induráin in 1989 (his first Tour stage win), and Frenchman Richard Virenque in 1995 (on the day Fabio Casartelli had his fatal crash).

There’s strong chance that a survivor from the day’s early break will hang on to win, so look for a Cannondale-Garmin man to succeed, perhaps Dan Martin or Ryder Hesjedal.

Stage 12 (July 16): Lannemezan–Plateau de Beille 195km
It’s possible that the race situation this year will be similar to that in 2011 when the third Pyrenean stage was virtually neutralized. Everyone knew that the more decisive stages were waiting for them in the Alps (just as they are this year) and so they were content to play a game of wait and see.

That applied especially to the last Pyrenean stage finishing atop the Plateau de Beille (the same as this year), where 11 riders finished within 48 seconds of each other—as opposed to a time spread of some four minutes in previous finishes on this rugged finishing climb.

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Hopefully, that won’t be the case this year, and after crossing the Portet d’Aspet, la Core and Lars passes, the race leaders will fight it out on the 15.8-kilometer-long Plateau de Beille. Spanish fans always gather here in large numbers—and perhaps this year they will see one of their own win the stage, perhaps Contador (who won his first-ever Tour stage here in 2007) or the enigmatic Joaquim Rodriguez of Team Katusha, though should Quintana be at his best this would be a perfect climb for him to conquer.

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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson