Under normal circumstances a bunch sprint should eventuate. Yet as we’ve seen time and time again, Le Tour is anything but normal, and among the GC contenders, this year in particular.
Going into the final week, never in the recorded history of this great race has the battle for le maillot jaune been so close among so many. There are three favourites whose names correspond with the first three places on the classement général, but seven men, whether they admit it or not, believe that with good legs, good conditions, and, of course, good fortune, they can be the one who stands tallest come Sunday in Paris.
Oui, oui... There is nothing normal about riding 3,540 kilometres over three weeks but this is what we love about the Tour. For the 175 riders that remain it is, for the next six days, their everyday reality; for the viewers it is an escape from the everyday.
Speaking of escapes, one is certainly likely today.
Mountain passes & hills
Km 20.5 - Côte de Boussoulet: 4.5 kilometre-long climb at 6.3% - category 3
Km 65.0 - Col du Rouvey: 2.8 kilometre-long climb at 5.6% - category 4
As to whether it will go the distance on this lumpy to begin with though mostly downhill run through the beautiful Ardèche province to Romans-Sur-Isere, one of 10 new stage hosts this year, well, the three w’s will decide that: wear on the legs; wind in their faces (or behind their buttocks); and will of the peloton, in particular les équipes pour les sprinteurs.
One of two potential opportunist stages left, should body and mind form an agreement, those with little prowess in large group gallops or traversing major mountains, or not be summoned for domestique duties the following two stages to the Gailiber and Izoard, will throw caution to the wind.
Still, with many sprinters yet to crack a stage and Marcel Kittel on a roll like never before - he must win three more to equal the all-time record of eight victories in a single Tour de France - and no, it’s not Eddy Merckx but Frenchman Charles Pelissier, in 1930 - you probably wouldn’t want to put your house on an escape surviving Tuesday. The flat run-in through the Rhône valley is also unfavourable to the breakaway specialist, compounding the conundrum.
While Canberran Michael Matthews has his stage win, and he’ll tell you everything after that is a bonus, it doesn’t mean he’s going to hand Kittel the maillot vert on a platter. His 79-point deficit is a country mile at any stage of the competition, let alone the last week, but there are enough intermediate points on offer to keep us in suspense.
Christian Prudhomme, Tour de France race director, says:
“The roads of the day are perfectly known by the amateur riders of the Ardéchoise cyclosportive, with a topography that could give confidence to breakaway riders. But finishes in the Rhône Valley often end up in bunch sprints… unless the wind plays a role.”
Finish line: Place Jean Jaurès, at the end of a 300m finishing straight. Width: 6m
Weather: 27°C and partly sunny at start, 0% precipitation, 33% humidity, wind 22km/h S; 32°C and mostly sunny at finish, 0% precipitation, 22% humidity, wind 18km/h SSW.