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WHAT’S AHEAD AT THE TOUR–PHASE 5: MASSIF CENTRAL

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July 16, 2015 – The front page of the French newspaper L’Équipe on Thursday summed up the current state of affairs at the 102nd Tour de France: “Everyone against Froome.” That “everyone” is headed by his remaining (but distant on time) rivals: Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, and Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo; while still hoping to make the podium are defending champion Vincenzo Nibali of Astana and a rejuvenated Robert Gesink of Lotto NL-Jumbo.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by James Startt

Froome’s Team Sky is also having to fight the continued, but certainly unjust, inferences in the media that he, fifth-place Geraint Thomas and teammate Richie Porte must be doping or using mechanically aided bikes to achieve their stellar performances. On a lesser level, the other teams and much of the public is upset that Froome and Sky are killing the Tour.

Such sentiment is nothing now, of course. Dominant champions of the past, including Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil, were all accused of making the Tour a bore—although in those pre-EPO days, doping accusations were less common.

Thursday’s final stage in the Pyrénées showed that the challengers aren’t giving up quite yet. Sky had to respond to attacks made on the finishing climb to Plateau de Beille by Contador, Nibali, Valverde and Quintana. None of them succeeded, partly because of the storm-induced headwinds on the climb’s upper slopes, but they did show that Froome has to be totally focused on every stage ahead.

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Next up are three stages across the rocky plateaux and deep valleys that make up the Massif Central. In “normal” Tours, these stages would provide a quiet transition between the Pyrénées and the Alps, but this hilly terrain is open to the long-range attacks that can make life complicated for the yellow jersey, and the difficult stage finishes into Rodez on Friday and Mende on Saturday could provide more surprises.

Stage 13 (July 17): Muret–Rodez 198.5km
Only one previous Tour stage has finished at Rodez, in 1984, when a three-man breakaway arrived seven minutes ahead of the peloton, with the stage win going to French rider Pierre-Henri Menthéour; Sean Kelly won the sprint for fourth.

This year’s stage 13 to Rodez is filled with half a dozen short climbs in its final 50 kilometers, the last of which is in the streets of Rodez, the 570-meter-long Côte de Saint-Pierre that averages 9.6 percent and has some 11-percent pitches.

That hill will likely decide the stage’s outcome between the breakaway riders—Peter Sagan would be a logical stage winner if he can make it into the break—and the uphill finish could provide an opening for one of the yellow jersey contenders, Valverde perhaps, to gain a few seconds when the peloton arrives in Rodez.

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Stage 14 (July 18): Rodez–Mende 178.5km
A similar scenario—a breakaway group arriving many minutes ahead of the pack—is probable on stage 14 to Mende. But the finishing climb is a far more serious affair.

The Côte de la Croix Neuve is just 3 kilometers long, but the gradient averages over 10 percent, with the steepest pitches in the middle. It has been included in the Tour three times.

In 1995, Laurent Jalabert split from a five-man breakaway group to win the stage, six minutes ahead of the yellow jersey group to climb to third place on GC behind Miguel Induráin and Alex Zülle. Ten years later, this was a late stage, and a 10-man break arrived 11 minutes ahead of the main pack. Spaniard Marcos Serrano took the win, while four men split from the group of leaders, with the sprint going to Cadel Evans ahead of Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich.

Then, in 2010, Joaquim Rodriguez and Contador dropped the other leaders, with Rodriguez winning the stage and Contador gaining 10 seconds on yellow jersey Andy Schleck.

This year, Contador and Quintana will surely try to gain some time on that final climb, while Nibali and Valverde might attempt a breakaway on the 9-kilometer-long Côte de Sauveterre just over 30 kilometers from the finish—but as Froome, Thomas and Team Sky have shown all Tour long, they will do everything to defend the yellow jersey. As for the day’s winner, this stage could be the one that offers Cannondale-Garmin’s Dan Martin the opportunity he deserves.

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Stage 15 (July 19): Mende–Valence 183km
This is the last stage that the sprinters can hope to win before the final one in Paris, but the sprinters will need to stay in the peloton over the Cat. 2 Col de l’Escrinet, the last climb in the Massif Central, to have a chance of winning.

A 25-kilometer-long descent will give some the chance of catching back, but the final 30 kilometers are in the valley of the Rhône, where the Astana, BMC Racing, Movistar and Tinkoff-Saxo teams may try to create gaps in the crosswinds that often blow here.

In any case, with this rare opportunity for a mass finish, look to the sprinters’ teams to bring back any breakaways before the finish in the riverside city of Valence. Mark Cavendish will likely remember his stage win at nearby Bourg-lès-Valence in 2010 ahead of Alessandro Petacchi and Tyler Farrar. His top rivals this time will be Sagan, André Greipel and John Degenkolb—who all have the ability to overcome the day’s hilly terrain.

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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson