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Will Chris Froome take his third stage win in the final mountaintop finish?

Photo: A.S.O.

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21.07.2016 @ 18:49 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Chris Froome confirmed what everybody already knew – that he is the strongest rider in the race – but the battle for the remaining podium places got a lot more exciting. Second and third spot are up for grabs in the final two stages in the Alps, starting with Friday’s final summit finish of this year’s race. Until now, the GC contenders haven’t battled it out for the stage win in a mountaintop finish but will anyone finally try to bring back what is likely to be another formidable breakaway.

 

The course

In 2011, the Tour de France introduced a novelty when they designed a very short stage between Mondane Valfrejus and Alpe d’Huez. It created an exciting race as the favourites were not afraid of the distance and so attacked each other right from the start. Since then, the idea of short, intensive mountain stages has been very popular and all the grand tours have repeatedly made use of the concept. Last year ASO had two short mountain stages on the final days leading to big finale in Paris and they again created a huge drama and almost turned the race in its head. This year the Giro d’Italia had a similar finale, with two short stages in the Alps bringing the race to dramatic conclusion.

 

It now seems to be the preferred way to end a grand tour. For the second year in a row, two short Alpine stages will decide the winner of the Tour de France. Unlike last year, both of them don’t have summit finishes but they both have the potential do some serious damage as they have numerous hard climbs.

 

The first challenge is stage 19 which will bring the riders over just 146km from Albertville to a summit finish on the category 1 climb of Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc. It has one of those starts that every sprinter fears as it’s up the Collet de Tamié (8.1km, 7%) right from the start. For some reason, that climb is uncategorized but it’s sure to send lots of riders out the back door. Then the riders will travel north along a gradually descending road, passing the flat intermediate sprint at the 25.5km mark.

 

In the city of Talloires on the shores of the Annecy Lake after 32.5km of racing, the riders will turn around to go up the category 1 climb of Col de la Forclaz de Montmin (9.8km, 6.9%). The descent leads back to flat roads as the riders turn west to approach the next challenge, the category 2 climb of Col de la Forclaz de Queige (5.6km, 7.8%). A short descent and a gradually rising road will then bring the riders to the bottom of the hardest climb of the stage, the category HC Montee de Bisanne (12.4km, 8.2%). It’s a tough climb which only gets steeper and steeper as the gradient barely drops below the 9% for the final 6.4km.

 

The top comes with 49.5km to go and is followed by a gradual descent. Then the riders will travel along slightly rising roads in a northeasterly direction, passing through the previous day’s finish in Megève before they get to a short descent that leads to the cities of Domancy and Saint-Gervais les-Bains where the final hostilities will start. First the riders will turn around to go up the Cote des Amerands which is a small appetizer for the final category 1 mountain. It averages 8% over 9.8km and has a very tough start with gradients of 10-13% in the first two kilometres. The next three kilometres are easier and then it’s 7-10% for the final four kilometres. There are multiple hairpin bends in the final five kilometres, including one just after the flamme rouge. Then there’s a sharp turn and some winding bends that lead onto the 60m, 5m wide finishing straight.

 

The final climb was first used for the finish of a major bike race at last year’s Criterium du Dauphiné. Here Chris Froome bounced back from a difficult start by winning the stage in solo fashion, having finally managed to get rid of Tejay van Garderen whom he distanced by 17 seconds. That set the scene for a thrilling final stage and Froome went on to gain what he needed in the final stage to dispose the BMC captain from the yellow jersey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

The riders were lucky to escape the rain in today’s time trial but they are unlikely to have a similar kind of luck on Friday. Throughout the entire stage there is a at least 50% chance of rain, with the risk only getting bigger towards the end of the stage. The maximum temperature at the bottom of the final climb will be 25 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a westerly direction and so the riders will mainly have a cross-headwind in the first part. At the bottom of the first categorized climb, they will turn into a cross-tailwind and then it will be either a tailwind or a cross-tailwind until they get to the final climb where it will be a headwind for the final 4.5km.

 

The favourites

Critics have claimed that Chris Froome only leads the race because of his strong team but after his excellent ride in today’s time trial, no one can deny that he is by far the strongest rider in the race. It was another perfectly paced effort by the Brit and another demonstration of Sky’s superiority when it comes to planning. While many riders started too fast, Froome was only fifth at the first time check but from there he was faster than anybody else. It was the same in the first TT where Froome didn’t seem to be on track for a great ride but ended the race by demolishing everybody by Tom Dumoulin.

 

In general, the TT shows how Sky’s planning pays off. The team clearly have an eye on the teams classification as several of their climbers rode pretty fast and it is interesting to see how most of them gained time from time check to time check. That’s a big difference compared to Tom Dumoulin who usually gauges his effort really well. This time the Dutchman didn’t get things right and after a great start, he was only able to gain four seconds on Thomas De Gendt in the final part.

 

Richie Porte did the same mistake, just like he did in the first time trial. The Australian started very fast and won the Bernard Hinault prize as the fastest rider on the Cote de Domancy. From there, he faded significantly, just like he did one week ago. It is hard to see that the Australian is a former Sky rider as his time trials have been completely opposite to what we have seen from the British team. The Australian still did a good TT and even though he had hoped to gain more time, it was important for him that his gains were on the riders who are still ahead of him in the standings.

 

The stage also confirmed what we saw yesterday: that Fabio Aru and Romain Bardet are on the rise while Bauke Mollema and Daniel Martin are fading. A mountain time trial at this point in a grand tour is more about form and freshness than skills against the clock and so the result is a pretty honest reflection of form. Adam Yates is harder to assess as he seemed to pay the prize for a very fast start.

 

While the battle for the overall win is all but over, the podium spots are really up for grabs and Fabio Aru, Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana, Adam Yates and Bauke Mollema all have realistic hopes of a spot in the top 3. That should set the scene for some aggressive racing in the final two weeks. No one will really be looking at Froome and Sky but the battle between the rest of the contenders will really be on.

 

It all starts with tomorrow’s short intense stage which is the final uphill finish in the race. That adds another complexity to the stage. Usually, it would almost be guaranteed that it was a stage for a breakaway as the GC teams would prefer to save energy for the final battle in the mountains. However, stage 20 finishes with a dangerous descent and many riders will be unwilling to take too many risks here. Hence, this is their best chance to win a stage so they may have to go for the win already on Friday.

 

However, it won’t be easy to control things. It’s uphill right from the start so the peloton will explode to pieces while the best climbers will simply ride away. This means that we will get a very strong break and in such a short and tough stage, it will take a very strong team to bring them back. Only Astana, Sky and maybe Movistar have the means to do so but there is no guarantee that they want to do so.

 

We doubt that Movistar will. They know that they are unlikely to win the stage in a GC battle so they will probably go for the win from a breakaway which also works well for the teams classification. Sky already have two stage wins but Froome hasn’t won a mountaintop finish yet. They will probably ride conservatively but as it seems that the teams classification is also on their mind, they may try to bring it back together.

 

However, Astana really have the key to this stage. They have shown that they are not afraid of taking the race on and after a slow start, their domestiques have come into form. Diego Rosa is absolutely flying, Vincenzo Nibali is no longer too far from his best, Paolo Tiralongo is getting better and Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert are still good climbers even though they are not at their best. Fabio Aru has lots of confidence after today’s time trial and he believes that he can win the stage. Furthermore, he needs the bonus seconds in the battle for the podium so we believe that Astana will control the stage before going full gas on the hardest climb where they can really do a lot of damage and make the race really hard.

 

BMC may have similar plans. Richie Porte is riding really well at the moment and like Aru he needs the bonus seconds to get onto the podium. He must have the belief that he can win the stage in a battle with Froome while he is unlikely to win the downhill finish to Morzine on Saturday. This is his best chance so BMC should lend Astana a hand, at least in the first part of the stage where they should have the team to do so.

 

This means that a very strong break with the usual suspects – Ilnur Zakarin, Rafal Majka, Jarlinson Pantano, Serge Pauwels, Kristijan Durasek, Pierre Rolland, Alexis Vuillermoz, Julian Alaphilippe  – is likely to go clear on the first climb. Then we expect Astana and BMC to hit the front and make sure that the gap doesn’t get too big. On the HC climb, Astana will probably make the race explode but we won’t see any attacks. The climb comes too far from the finish so it will all come down to the final climb. Astana will maintain a fast speed in the subsequent section and then we expect the GC riders to battle it out on the final climb. With a strong break, there is no guarantee that they will manage to reel them in but we believe they will.

 

The final climb is only of the first category but that’s mainly due to the length. The gradients are very severe, especially at the bottom, and this means that it’s a day when lots f damage can be done. If one attacks in the steep section, he can really gain time. Unfortunately, the mighty Sky team is unlikely to allow that to happen and as there will be a headwind, the attacks will probably have to wait until it again gets steeper in the finale. The main selection will happen from behind and then we should have a real fight in the final 3-4km.

 

If the GC riders will battle it out, it is hard to look beyond Chris Froome as the favourite. No one has managed to drop the Brit yet and we are left with the impression that he hasn’t really shown his real strength yet. Knowing that he has to be fresh for the third week, he has gauged his effort very carefully, only making a few accelerations and then shutting down the attacks.

 

Tomorrow he will again save energy to make sure that he doesn’t crack on the final stage but now his lead is so massive that he can allow himself to go a bit harder for a stage win. Froome is a very hungry and aggressive rider who rarely misses an opportunity to go for the win and we have the impression that he wants to win a summit finish before the end of the race. If things are back together for the final climb, he will probably show the world who’s the strongest rider.

 

The only real threat for Froome is Richie Porte. In fact, Froome hasn’t dropped the BMC rider yet and the Australian has even been riding a lot more in the wind than Froome. As said, we believe that Froome has been holding something back and that he is really stronger than Porte. In the Dauphiné, however, Porte managed to follow Froome and it’s not impossible that those two riders will again arrive at the finish together. Froome is faster in a sprint but it’s not impossible that he will actually give a stage win to his close friend who needs it more than him and needs bonus seconds to get closer to the podium.

 

We find it very hard to imagine that anyone will be able to beat Froome or Porte in a GC battle so our third pick is an escapee. Ilnur Zakarin is one of the best climbers in the world and he has proved his huge class by riding himself into form during this race. The Russian would probably have won stage 15 if he hadn’t lost his contact lens and everybody admitted that he was in a class of his own in stage 17.

 

Zakarin took it easy in today’s time trial and this clearly shows that he is hungry for more. The downhill finish to Morzine will be tricky for him so this is his best chance. There is virtually no chance that he won’t be in the break when we have this kind of start and honestly, we doubt that anyone will be able to beat him.

 

His biggest rival could be Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian will probably have to stay with Fabio Aru but he has a special status in the team. He has clearly indicated that he wants to win a stage and this is a good opportunity for him. Nibali has already defied team orders on a number of occasions, going on the attack in stages where it was the plan for others to have a go, and it would be no surprise to see him in the break tomorrow. He rode really well yesterday and did a good time trial today so his form seems to be good enough to win.

 

Rafal Majka will of course be in the break too. Like Zakarin, he is in great form at the moment and he has been on the attack in almost every mountain stage. He still hasn’t won a stage and this is his best chance. He didn’t manage to beat Zakarin yesterday but he managed to follow him in stage 15. They are at a pretty similar level so the hierarchy could very well be different tomorrow.

 

Jarlinson Pantano had a slow start to the race but now he has really hit peak condition. Like Majka and Zakarin, he is very unlikely to miss the break and his form still seems to be growing. In stage 15, he couldn’t match Majka on the climbs but yesterday he was stronger than the Pole. He didn’t miss much so if Zakarin is on a less good day, the Colombian may be able to celebrate his and IAM’s second victory.

 

Julian Alaphilippe was in great form at the start of the race but then faded in the second week. Now he is back at his best level which he proved with his impressive performance in stage 15.If he hadn’t had a mechanical, he could very well have won that stage. Since then he has been on the attack every day and he even did a good time trial today. At this point, it is all about freshness and it seems that Alaphilippe has that in abundance. He is not a pure climber but the climbs in this stage are steep and short so they actually suit him pretty well. If he still has the kick he showed on Grand Colombier, he won’t be easy to beat.

 

Alexis Vuillermoz was a bit short on form when he arrived as he hasn’t done much racing this year. However, the Frenchman is getting better and better and has been one of the best climbers in the last few stages. He has just been selected for Rio and is keen to increase his status in the team. Ag2r are on home soil so they will do their utmost to get their in-form Frenchman in the break. The short, steep climbs suit him really well.

 

Serge Pauwels just missed the boat in stage 17 but he has clearly shown that he is getting better and better. He wasn’t at 100% in the beginning of the race but now he is very close to last year’s level. He has proved that he is one of the best climbers here but he seems to be a bit too generous with his efforts in the breaks. If he can save a bit more energy, he is strong enough to win.

 

Pierre Rolland is destined to be in the break too. The Frenchman is slowly recovering from his hand injury and he did a decent time trial today. He has been saving energy for the last few days and he is usually strong in the third week of a grand tour. The uphill start suits him well but the short, steep climbs are not ideal for him. That will make it harder for him to win but he should definitely be one of the best.

 

Kristijan Durasek is one of the most inconsistent riders in the peloton and you never know what to expect from the Croatian. However, he has really hit some form for the third week and has been in the breaks in the last two mountain stages. He is one of the best climbers at the moment and this is his best chance to win a stage and the downhill finish on stage 20 doesn’t suit him.

 

Finally, we will point to Wout Poels. The Dutchman seems to be fully at the level of Chris Froome and Richie Porte and we wouldn’t be surprised if he is able to follow those two riders in the finale. With Porte riding to gain time for the podium, this could open the door for Froome to give a stage win to his loyal and very strong domestique

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Chris Froome (GC battle)

Other winner candidates: Richie Porte (GC battle), Ilnur Zakarin (breakaway)

Outsiders: Vincenzo Nibali, Rafal Majka, Jarlinson Pantano, Julian Alaphilippe (all from a breakaway)

Jokers: Alexis Vuillermoz (breakaway), Serge Pauwels (breakaway), Pierre Rolland (breakaway), Kristijan Durasek (breakaway), Wout Poels (GC battle)

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