The overall winner may be all but decided but there is still a lot to play for in the battle for the podium places in this year’s Tour de France. After a one-year absence, the decisive time trial on the penultimate day is back and huge time differences can be made on the long, very hilly 54km course that has the potential to produce another shake-up of the GC.
With the 2012 edition being the major exception, Christian Prudhomme has scaled down the amount of time trialling since he took over the role of race director. The 2014 edition is no exception as it offers just a single race against the clock and it is very rare for a Tour that the riders will not have used their TT bikes before they get to the penultimate stage. At 54km, this year’s only TT is pretty long but with no previous time trials, this year’s course definitely favours the climbers.
Furthermore, the organizers haven’t done the specialists too many favours when they designed the course for the time trial that brings the riders in a northeasterly direction from Bergerac to Perigeux, continuing the journey towards Paris. Only the first 11km are pretty flat but from there, it is always up or down, with four significant climbs being spread throughout the course. Of course none of them are big challenges in their own right but the many changes of rhythm means that the climbers will have a better chance to defend themselves against the specialists.
It will be important to save some energy for the finale as the steepest climb, Cote de Coulounieix-Charmiers (1.4km, 6.4%) comes after 46.6km of racing. After the top, 6km remain and they first consist of a flat section, then a descent and a finally a 2km slightly uphill road to the finish. There are several corners and roundabouts inside the final 3km, meaning that there will be lots of changes of rhythm right till the end of the stage.
The weather always plays a crucial role in a time trial, especially when it takes place over a time span of almost 7 hours as the conditions can be dramatically different for the early and late starters. Hence, it is always of crucial importance to study the weather forecast before predicting the outcome of a race against the clock.
Today the riders had horrendous conditions for the penultimate road stage and they will be glad to know that they have now left the rain behind them. Tomorrow will be a very sunny day and the temperature will reach a pleasant maximum of 27 degrees.
There will be a light wind from a westerly/northwesterly direction and it is said to freshen a bit as the day goes on. If it is more of a westerly direction, the riders will have a cross-tailwind and so the stronger winds should favour the GC riders who are among the late starters. If it is a northwesterly wind, it will be a crosswind and so the early starters may have a bigger advantage. Key riders like Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin both start in the second half and should have more or less the same conditions as the GC riders.
The time triallists may not have been done many favours in this year’s Tour de France but tomorrow they have a great chance to create some big differences. A 54km time trial can do some great damage and the time gaps between the best GC riders are usually a lot bigger than they are in even the hardest mountain stage.
However, time trials in the final week of a grand tour are a delicate affair and the results are usually very different from what would see in a stand-alone event on a similar course. After three weeks of hard racing, recovery plays a massive role and as the GC riders usually recover a lot better than the pure specialists, such TTs after usually dominated by the candidates for the top positions in the overall standings. Meanwhile, the specialists usually struggle at this point of the race and so they may not be able to perform at their usual level. It is no wonder that Fabian Cancellara has only won one late grand tour time trial despite the dominant position he once had in the time trialling hierarchy.
This year this may be even more pronounced as two factors favour the GC riders. First of all, the course is very hilly and there are not many metres of flat roads in the undulating terrain around Perigeux. Secondly, the stage doesn’t come on the back of a hard mountain stage which means that both the specialists and the GC riders go into the stage with an easier day in their legs. If today’s stage had been a hard mountain stage, the specialists would have taken it easy while the GC riders would have had to go full gas. Now they are fighting on much more equal terms.
On paper, Tony Martin is of course the major favourite and despite our initial remarks we will put our money on the world champion to take the win. After his total dominance in 2013, Martin has not been his usual self in 2014 and he has had surprisingly few TT victories. While he has been climbing better than ever before, he has been beaten several times in the discipline where he usually excels.
In theory, he would have benefited from a flatter course but this year he has actually done his best TTs on hilly routes. He won the TT in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and would have won the Tour de Romandie TT if he hadn’t had a near-crash on the descent. In the Tour de Suisse, he won both TTs and they were held on very undulating courses as well.
His great performances in these hilly TTs may be written down to his improved climbing skills and as he proved with his long solo ride in stage 9, not many riders can go faster up this kind of climbs than Martin. Furthermore, the course isn’t too technical which have proved more of a challenge for the powerful German.
Finally, Martin has proved that he is able to perform well in TTs towards the end of a grand tour. In 2011 he won the time trial on the penultimate day and one year earlier he was second. This year he doesn’t appear to be too fatigued and he seems pretty confident in his own ability to shine at this point in the race. It will definitely not be a walk in the park and we don’t expect Martin to win by a big margin but the world champion is the favourite to take the win.
Vincenzo Nibali may not be a TT specialist but over the last few years he has improved a lot. Together with Specialized and Astana, he has made a dedicated effort to better all skills in this very unique discipline and he has come a long way. Last year he was fourth in the long TTs in both the Giro and the Vuelta and both stages were held on hilly courses that are not too dissimilar to tomorrow’s. He would definitely have preferred a more technical route but the many changes of rhythm suit him perfectly.
Furthermore, Nibali is clearly the strongest rider in this race and this plays a very important role at this late point of the race. Usually, the race leader is among the very best in a TT in the third week and we wouldn’t be surprised if Nibali takes another stage win in a discipline that has never done him too many favours.
Another big rival for Martin is Tom Dumoulin. This year the young Dutchman has taken a massive step up and he now seems to have joined the real TT elite that has so far been made up of Martin, Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin. At just 23 years of age, he has finished second behind Martin thrice in 2013 and his margins of defeat are definitely on a downward trend.
Dumoulin is not only a great time triallist, he is a decent climber as well and this hilly course should suit him perfectly. He doesn’t have an awful lot of grand tour experience but when he completed his first three-week race 12 months ago, he was still fresh in the final week, making two decisive breaks in the final week of the race.
This year he still seems to be pretty fresh and he has saved some energy for this stage over the last few days. He admits that he is no longer in his Tour de Suisse condition but he is definitely not on his knees. In the Swiss race, Martin only beat Dumoulin by 22 seconds on a similar course and we would actually expect Dumoulin to be slightly fresher than Martin at this point of the race. The distance may be a problem as he has not done too many TTs of this length but it would be no big surprise if Dumoulin finally manages to beat Martin on the biggest scene of them all.
As said, GC riders are usually among the strongest at this point in the race and this maes Tejay van Garderen an obvious candidate. On paper, the American is clearly the strongest time triallist among the race favourites and if he can live up to his 2012 and 2013 standards, he will be in the mix.
The hilly course suits van Garderen well and he is clearly still riding well at this late point in the race. There is one major concern though. In 2014 van Garderen has improved his climbing massively but it seems that it may have had a negative effect on his time trialling. This year he hasn’t done an awful lot of TTs but he didn’t do too well in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Criterium du Dauphiné. Van Garderen still hasn’t shown that he has maintained the skills that laid the foundations for his 5th place in the 2012 Vuelta but if he has, he is definitely capable of beating Martin.
Among the GC riders, Jean-Christophe Peraud should be one of the strongest. While he has never been among the best on flat courses, he is very strong on undulating course. It is no wonder that he usually does really well in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco TT which is usually a very hilly affair. All year he has been riding better than ever before and this includes his TT performances. Being in the form of his life and showing no signs of fatigue, Peraud should excel on a course that suits him down to the ground.
Michal Kwiatkowski may not have been able to live up to the lofty GC expectations but that is no surprise. The Pole has never proved that he is able to follow the best in the high mountains and so his big time losses don’t necessarily indicate that he is not riding well. Over the last few days, he has been saving energy for the time trial and by making it into the break in stage 16, he proved that he still has some firepower.
Kwiatkowski is one of the most versatile athletes in the peloton but his main strength is probably his TT skills. Earlier this year he won the prologue in the Tour de Romandie and the Volta ao Algarve TT and he was third in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Last year he proved that he can do well in TTs towards the end of a grand tour. The hilly course should suit him well but the distance may be a bit too much for him to actually win the stage. It would be a surprise though if Kwiatkowski doesn’t crack the top 10.
Ion Izagirre is very similar to Peraud in the sense that he is a great time triallist on hilly courses. Usually struggling a bit on the very flat specialist routes, he excels when the terrain is undulating as he has proved on several occasions. This year he has finished in the top 10 in all the TTs he has done and there is a great chance that he will keep this streak alive in tomorrow’s stage. While he wasn’t at his best in the early part of the race, he has been getting stronger and stronger and as he will be allowed to go full gas on the roads to Perigeux, he could find himself in podium contention.
When he came back from suspension, Alejandro Valverde found it hard to find back to his past level in the time trials but in 2013 and 2014 he has been riding better than ever before. While he has never been a rider for the flat courses, he is usually very strong in hilly TTs. He has laid the foundations for one of his Dauphiné victories by winning such a hard time trial and he has been doing great TTs in Pais Vasco as well. Last year he was 5th in the very hard final Tour TT but his greatest performance was maybe the one he delivered just one week before the start of the Tour. On a course that had several flat sections, he crushed riders like Izagirre and Jonathan Castroviejo at the Spanish championships and if he can reproduce that kind of performance he should be among the very best. He is definitely very tired at the moment and we doubt that he will be among the best. On this kind of course, however, he may produce a surprise.
Team Sky find themselves in the rare situation of riding for stage wins in the Tour de France and they have several cards to play for the time trial. On paper, it should be a really good one for Richie Porte but the Australian has shown no sign of improvement after his illness. On the other hand, Geraint Thomas has been riding really well and he will definitely give it a go. He may not be among the very best time triallists but earlier this year he took a commanding victory in the Bayern Rundfahrt TT. With his improved climbing skills, he could do well on this course. The main question is his freshness as he has appeared to be a bit fatigued over the last few days.
Michael Rogers is no longer the time triallist he once was and he regrets his decision to focus more on his climbing skills. Nonetheless, he is still very skillful in the discipline and he is clearly riding well at the moment. Unlike many others, he excels over long distances and a good ride on the hilly course could give him a top 10 result. On the other hand, his manager Bjarne Riis claims that his Australian rider is probably a bit too tired at the moment to be among the best.
Astana have two great time triallists in Lieuwe Westra and Tanel Kangert and they could both do well on this course. They won’t be asked to save energy for tomorrow but they may be a bit fatigued after three weeks of hard work for Vincenzo Nibali. Westra has been riding really strongly in this race but in the last two years he has not been at his previous level in TTs. Similarly, Kangert hasn’t lived up to his past performances in 2014 and in general he has not been at his best in this race. We don’t have too big expectations for the two Astana riders but you can never rule them out in a TT.
Finally, three specialists deserve to be mentioned. For Luke Durbridge, Jan Barta and Sylvain Chavanel, this time trial is a big goal but much will depend on their recovery. This year, Durbridge has been climbing better than ever before but his TTs have not lived up to his past performances. At this point, however, it may be more about strength than TT skills and this may suit Durbridge on this hilly course.
Barta is a great time triallist but it is hard to gauge how well he is going at this point in the race. The course may be a bit too hilly to suit him perfectly and a top 10 is probably the maximum achievable for him.
Last year Chavanel was riding excellently well but in 2014 he has not been at the same level. Maybe Father Time is about to catch up with the strong Frenchman who has not been riding too well in this race either. On the other hand, the rolling course suits him well and if he can find back to his 2013 level, he is an obvious candidate for the best places.
Thibaut Pinot has always been suffering in time trials but over the last 12 months he has made great strides. In fact, he has finished in the top 10 in three WorldTour time trials in 2014. All were held on hilly courses and even though tomorrow’s route is not equally difficult, it should suit him well. We still think that he will drop to fourth in the overall standings but there is chance that he can hold off a fatigued Valverde.
Finally, we will post our prediction of the final top 10 after tomorrow’s time trial:
1. Vincenzo Nibali
2. Jean-Christophe Peraud
3. Alejandro Valverde
4. Thibaut Pinot
5. Tejay van Garderen
6. Romain Bardet
7. Bauke Mollema
8. Leopold König
9. Laurens Ten Dam
10. Haimar Zubeldia
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Tony Martin
Other winner candidates: Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin, Tejay van Garderen
Outsiders: Jean-Christophe Peraud, Michal Kwiatkowski, Ion Izagirre
Jokers: Alejandro Valverde, Geraint Thomas, Michael Rogers, Lieuwe Westra, Tanel Kangert, Luke Durbridge, Jan Barta, Sylvain Chavanel, Thibaut Pinot
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