Easily the greatest test to date, and uphill from the get-go in Nantua, one of 10 new sites in this year’s race, there’s nary a metre of flat till day’s end, when the peloton board l’avion (that's Français for plane) west to Dordogne for the first rest day tomorrow.
For the GC contenders and their henchmen, plenty of reconnoitring will have been done on these climbs in the Jura in the months of May and June. With average gradients of 9, 9.9 and 10.3 percent and lengths of 10.5, 8.5 and 8.7 kilometres for the trio of hors catégorie climbs on le menu du jour, the ascents are not dissimilar from one another, although the Grand Colombier is the most irregular and based on its position from the finish, the Mont du Chat - used only once before and where Raymond Poulidor dropped Eddy Merckx at the ‘74 Tour, although the Cannibal came back to win the stage - the greatest hurdle. Letour.fr notes that such is its severity, when Romain Bardet lived in Chambéry he rarely went up it.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 3.5 - Côte des Neyrolles: 3.2 kilometre-long climb at 7.2% - category 2
Km 11.0 - Col de Bérentin: 4.1 kilometre-long climb at 6.1% - category 3
Km 38.0 - Côte de Franclens: 2.4 kilometre-long climb at 6% - category 3
Km 67.5 - Col de la Biche (Croix de Famban, 1 316 m): 10.5 kilometre-long climb at 9% - category H
Km 91.0 - Grand Colombier (1 501 m): 8.5 kilometre-long climb at 9.9% - category H
Km 134.0 - Côte de Jongieux: 3.9 kilometre-long climb at 4.2% - category 4
Km 155.5 - Mont du Chat (1 504 m): 8.7 kilometre-long climb at 10.3% - category H
It conveniently appeared on the sixth stage of the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, the first of three back-to-back mountain legs. At the end of the 145.5km stage where the Mont du Chat was the final hurdle (albeit after two climbs rather than the preceeding six today), four of the in-form riders at this year’s Tour - Jakob Fuglsang, Richie Porte, Christopher Froome and Fabio Aru - sprinted for stage honours, Fuglsang emerging triumphant and Porte in yellow. What was interesting was not so much the names or the order the quartet arrived at the finish but the remarks afterwards that come July 9, the descent of the Chat - described by Porte as “crazy” - would be as important as the climb itself. “I'm certainly grateful that I have seen the climb. I know what I'm up against. But it is going to be much tougher than on the Dauphiné because of the climbs that come before," Froome said at a press conference earlier this week.
We all now know the Tasmanian was mugged by a coalition of the willing on the final stage of the Dauphiné, granting Fuglsang overall victory and relegating Porte to runner-up; while not in the race lead at Le Tour, he’ll be hoping his BMC Racing team has learned from past mistakes and present a more united front, though some were left wondering yesterday at Station des Rousses, where he found himself sans team-mates on the final climb.
With a dozen stages still to race after today, unless your name’s Alberto Contador, it’s probably too early to go long and attack on the appropriately named Col de la Biche or Grand Colombier. But if Bertie goes, will others follow?
Probably not. Least not anyone else in the top 10, who will likely be playing the long game till the Alps.
Saturday’s stage, even though the GC contenders finished as one, was a tough slog for all. “It's such a hard day and everyone had a pretty solid day today, so I think there will be some tired legs out there,” Porte, fifth overall at 39 seconds, said at Station des Rousses. Simon Yates, maillot blanc and current sixth overall, said: “If you went super deep today you can really pay for it. The descent tomorrow is really technical but it’s not just the descent, it’s a monster stage before we even get to that point.”
From the top of the Colombier, there’s a good 15 kilometres of downhill and almost 40km of valley roads before the start of the Mont du Chat, at which point there will be little in the way of conversation. (Sorry, it had to be said.) And from the top of the Chat there lies another 26km to Chambéry, home to Romain Bardet’s AG2R-La Mondiale team - which means if you are away, you probably need a hand to stay away. “There is a fair distance to the finish after the climb (of the Mont du Chat) so it could be a negative race," suggested Porte two days earlier in Nuits-Saint-Georges.
Froome believes otherwise. "I'm expecting the general classification to get blown wide open,” he said Saturday.
"Tomorrow is going to be a really, really decisive stage of this year's Tour. It's still very close in the top 10 but (by the end of) this weekend, we will see where everyone is at."
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“Even in the Alps and the Pyrenees, climbs with average gradients of close to 10 percent on their entire length are pretty rare. There will be three on this Jura stage with a total ascending elevation of 4,600 metres. The riders will first discover the climb up the Col de la Biche, followed by the unprecedented and fearsome side of the Grand Colombier, known as the Directissime (gradients up to 22%), and the battle will finish off with the Mont du Chat, not on the Tour map since 1974. It'll be a real…”
Finish line: Quai des Allobroges, at the end of a 550m finishing straight (200m by line of sight). Width: 6.50m.
Weather: 24°C and scattered thunderstorms at start, 51% precipitation, 62% humidity, wind 7km/h SE; 28°C and partly cloudy at finish, 44% precipitation, 57% humidity, wind 11km/h SW.