Defence, attack, or sit back? Depends on what type of rider you are, really.
Two-hundred kilometre-plus days in the high mountains are virtually a thing of the past at the Tour de France. Some say it was these sadistic stages that indirectly led to the systemic doping problems we all know too well. Others, like Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, say it made for boring television, because in this modern-day milieu, no contender in their right mind would attack from a long way out - and if they did, they would pay for it.
In 2014 there was only one high mountain stage over 200 kilometres. Last year there was none, as is the case this time around - though there are two medium mountain stages greater than 200km (Stage 5 to Le Lioran, Stage 16 to Bern) in 2016.
Today's journey from Bourg-en-Bresse to Culoz is classified as 'moyenne montagne'; a medium mountain stage because five of the six Cols befit this category.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 23.0 - Col du Berthiand (780m): 6 kilometre-long climb at 8.1% - category 1
Km 52.0 - Col du Sappel (794m): 8.8 kilometre-long climb at 5.6% - category 2
Km 63.5 - Col de Pisseloup: 4.9 kilometre-long climb at 5.8% - category 3
Km 79.0 - Col de la Rochette: 5.1 kilometre-long climb at 5.4% - category 3
Km 113.0 - Grand Colombier (1,501m): 12.8 kilometre-long climb at 6.8% - category HC
Km 146.0 - Lacets du Grand Colombier (891m): 8.4 kilometre-long climb at 7.6% - category 1
But one Col does not and that is the Grand Colombier.
According to veteran cycling scribe Jean-François Quenet, writing for the official Tour guide, organisers thought long and hard about finishing the stage atop the Grand Colombier, which has been a high point of the Tour de l’Ain (today’s stage is entirely in this department) since 1989. Due to a lack of space at the summit, however, they decided against it. Monsieurs Prudhomme and Gouvenou also decided not to go up the steepest flank of the mountain (remarkably, there are four routes!), and instead use the western side from Lochieu.
A 6.8 percent average over 12.8km sounds relatively tame for the Tour, but it is the Grand Colombier's uneven gradient throughout that makes it difficult to establish any sort of rhythm. That the summit is still 47km from the finish with a 23.5km descent to follow may reduce the impetus for an attack - likely leaving the final ascent up a second face of the mountain, the Lacets du Grand Colombier - not to mention its many hairpins - “tough enough to make the whole race explode!” warns Gouvenou - as the one that causes most harm.
However if there's a breakaway (and on a day like this there usually is) then the Grand Colombier's slopes will inexorably lead to a split as it did on Stage 10 of the 2012 Tour, the first time the climb was used. An original 25-man group was reduced to just four by the summit - Dries Devenyns, Luis Leon Sanchez, Michele Scarponi and Thomas Voeckler - before daredevil descender Jens Voigt returned to the fore on the descent. From the top there were still 43km and a Cat. 3 climb to negotiate prior to the finish in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine - but it wasn't till the final 1.5 kilometres that the winning move was produced from the irrepressible Tommy V; then 33 years old and riding his tenth Grande Boucle.
A week later he would take another mountain stage, his fourth scalp at Le Tour; again from a breakaway, and cementing his lead in the mountains classification, which he ultimately won. There hasn’t been a more popular Frenchman since.
This year he'll be 37 and riding his 14th Tour de France. You just can't keep a good man down... Question is, can he do it again?
What goes up...
Like Stages 7 and 8 in the Pyrénées, the race organisers’ strategy was to keep the suspense till the final week in the Alps. Yet, to date, such has been Chris Froome’s superiority and willingness to take opportunities, a fortnight into this 103rd edition, the 31-year-old from Nairobi appears to be running away - quite literally! - with the trophy.
That the stage finishes in the valley in Culoz does not mean there are nil opportunities: the descents off the Grand Colombier and Lacets du Grand Colombier are highly technical, so those who want to win the stage will need to be as good going down as they are riding up. “I can’t see a rider winning the Tour here but, as on the Ventoux, you could easily lose it,” Gouvenou says. Maybe we’ll see the maillot jaune go from running man to “frog on a skateboard” again, as he did so effectively on the Peyresoude.
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says...
“Cyclists in the area are used to climbing the Grand Colombier, a fearsome — and feared — mountain pass in the Jura Massif from its four sides. The Tour peloton will face a similar challenge when it tackles the summit from two different sides in the same stage. A tricky descent awaits before the finish in Culoz.”
Weather: Bright sunshine. Temperatures from 26-29°C in the valleys, and 23°C at the Grand Colombier's summit. Light wind, northwesterly first half of the stage, then easterly to northeasterly.