If you are familiar with cycling then you are of course familiar with the Tour de France, and if you are familiar with the Tour then you are familiar with the Pyrénées - and if you are familiar with the Pyrénées then you know the Col d'Aspin.
The Aspin, the second high mountain col used in the Tour, is often overshadowed by its mighty neighbour because so many occasions it has been used as the springboard to the Col du Tourmalet before a likely finish in Cauterets, as was the case last year when Rafal Majka won solo. There's also the fact that there is essentially one road running east-west through the Pyrénées and these two climbs form part of it. Today, however, there is no Tourmalet on le menu du jour and naturally Monsieur Prudhomme has chosen to take the race up the longer (and harder) side of the Col d'Aspin.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 117.0 - Côte de Capvern: 7.7 kilometre-long climb at 3.1% - category 4
Km 155.5 - Col d'Aspin (1,490m): 12 kilometre-long climb at 6.5% - category 1
While the feature point of the race, there are still seven (mostly downhill) kilometres to the line in Lac de Payolle, the Hautes-Pyrénées mountain resort a first-time stage town at Le Tour. Both Prudhomme and his sidekick, technical director Thierry Gouvenou, are convinced the stage will be won - or lost - on the downhill: “Everything will perhaps be decided on the spectacular descent leading down to the finish at Lake Payolle rather than the climb that precedes it,” says the Tour’s 2IC. “Does that mean we’ve learned the lessons of last year, when Chris Froome took control of the race on the very first mountain stage, which finished at the summit of La Pierre-Saint-Martin? Yes, we have indeed.”
Are Gouvenou and Prudhomme trying to tell us they don’t want Froome to win, or just not dominate in the fashion he and his team did in 2013 and 2015? Is this the anti-Froome Tour?
If you don’t think a race (not just the stage) can be won or lost going down, just ask Steven Kruijswijk. Three days from the finish of this year’s Giro d’Italia and wearing the maglia rosa, the Dutchman crashed on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello - a consequence of intense pressure placed by a man most had written off as a candidate for overall victory: Vincenzo Nibali. ‘The Shark of Messina’ would go on to win the stage and move from fourth to second overall behind Esteban Chaves; 24 hours later, he then deposed the Colombian to move from second to first, where he remained. Kruijswijk, who fractured a rib as a result of the crash but nonetheless soldiered on to Turin, would end up fourth overall.
Says Gouvenou: “Our aim is to work out a route that will maintain the sense of suspense (till the final week). From this perspective, this Payolle stage is a better option (than last year’s mountain stage to La Pierre-Saint-Martin).”
Footnote: The 1.5km rise to l'arrivée means that unless you’re all alone, you'll still need to save some punch if you want to win.
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says...
“As the Tour enters the Pyrénées, the pace should increase and the race enter a new dimension. The climb to the Col d'Aspin will be the only theatre of battle on the day… in terms of climbing! But the descent, as splendid as it is technical, heading to the Lac de Payolle will also be a decisive exercise.”
What they say...
Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick-Step)
"This will be the first of the three days we'll spend in the Pyrenees, and to be quite frank, I don't know what to expect from these stages. I will try my best, but I know that it's going to be very difficult to defend my jersey."
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff)
“I would say it's a test day, as there hasn't been enough time to recover, but still I feel I have time to come back to my best.”
Richie Porte (BMC Racing)
"I've raced up Col d'Aspin quite a lot. I've done the recon on it this year. I think someone has to try there. It's not the most technical descent down to the finish. The stage in Andorra is one of the hardest stages in the Tour this year, so we'll have to evaluate on the day and in the moment and see what's possible."
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
"I don't think it will be (as decisive as last year's opening mountain stage). It's predominantly flat all day, then a little fourth cat climb and then obviously the Aspin. It's a tough climb but it shouldn't be too selective, I don't think. The day after is harder with four big climbs and it's going to be hot. I think that could be more selective. Then obviously Andorra (Stage 9) is the hardest stage of the race so far.
"I'm still feeling my ribs a bit but getting better every day. For Froomey, I think if it's hard like last year it would be nice for him to take time. But every day it's getting tougher and I think that should favour him."
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)
"I don't quite know what we're expecting. A breakaway could win, or maybe we'll see Movistar make another hard tempo like they did (on Wednesday). There are possibilities so we just have to be prepared for everything. The Andorra stage will certainly be one of the hardest stages. Some of the stages in the Alps are also really hard."
Weather: Warm and mainly sunny with temperatures around 28°C in the first part of the stage. Becoming unsettled at the end of the stage in the Pyrenees, with thundery showers likely and decreasing temperatures.