• Mercury rising: temperatures could be decisive in tomorrow's Tour stage. (AAP)Source: AAP
Stage 9 of this year's Tour de France has been highlighted as a pivotal stage, but Rob Arnold says there's one decisive aspect of the day that has been overlooked: the weather.
Rob Arnold

Cycling Central
9 Jul 2017 - 9:28 AM 

It takes only a glance at the Stage 9 profile to realise that the 181.5km stage from Nantua to Chambéry is going to have a big impact.

There are seven classified climbs; it’s brutal from the beginning and there is no respite. The road rises almost immediately and riders will be higher than 1,000m within the first 10km; 25km later they are back down to 300m. It’ll be so fast their ears will probably pop on the way down.

Up another little rise, down again and then… a vicious trio of climbs, the first hors categorie passes of the 104th Tour: Col de la Biche (1,316m at 67.5km), the Grand Colombier (1,501m at 91km) and the Mont du Chat (1,504m at 155.5km).

It’s a nasty stage. Some say it’ll be the toughest this year. And that’s an appraisal given before considering the weather. Look at the forecast and it gets even worse.

It’s difficult to even consider how violent 50+ degrees can be when you’re trying to climb a mountain like the Grand Colombier. The sun burns from above and the hot bitumen puts the peloton in oven-like conditions. I’ve heard it said that riders would rather be at the front, in the wind, than heating up with bodies all around them.

Mix the kind of terrain of Stage 9 with the temperatures that are predicted and there’s more to consider than just the physical exertion and effects of fatigue. There’s also the bubbling of the tar – it will be hot enough to make the road surface sticky. It’ll be a complete contrast to Düsseldorf. It will be something teams need to prepare for.

"Hand me my descending bike"

Modern cycling includes rituals that didn’t exist only ten short years ago. Until Team Sky came along, no one warmed up (or cooled down) on home trainers beside the team bus before or after the stage.

On Sunday, considering the opening nature of the stage, most of the riders will be turning their legs over rather than giving interviews – and, somewhat ironically, they’ll be warming up with ice vests on.

That’s a technical innovation that will feature in stage 9, but could it extend to multiple bike options for the GC favourites? Of course, pros are used to swapping bikes because of mechanical problems but we have seen Sky (and others) switch bikes for descents in the past.

During the TT from Embrun to Chorges back in 2013, Chris Froome’s mechanic, Gary Blem, jumped out of the team car at the top of a climb and switched bikes for the 10km descent to the finish for aerodynamic reasons. The advantages gained were“significant” according to Froome four years ago, and the reward was a stage win for the eventual champion.

This year we see a precedent-creating innovation at the Tour; the inclusion of bikes with disc brakes (80 years after the derailleur was first allowed in the race).

It begs the question, will Team Sky – or the teams of other GC favourites – consider a bike swap for the final descent? A little time lost for a bike change could translate to significant gains. According to the sprinters who have used them at the Tour, they do allow better modulation and thus better control.

In Stage 8, Froome and Geraint Thomas overshot a corner; the race leader stayed upright his team-mate crashed.

“It’s just a little bit of a reminder of how quickly things can change in the Tour,” said Froome. “One moment you’re in control of the race and everything’s going well. The next thing you’re in a ditch, with your team-mate over the barriers lying on the floor next to you.

“That’s the nature of the race. It’s pretty scary. You get just one corner like that, that just twists back on itself more than you expected and that could be the moment that ends your race.”

The descents tomorrow will be a crucial element of what is a complicated stage. There’s a lot to consider but it wouldn’t be surprising if Team Sky opts to put Froome on a Pinarello with disc brakes so he can have that little more control for the fast downhill towards Chambéry. Remember, his first stage win last year came courtesy of his descending skills.

Terrain, temperatures and tech are all part of the equation but ultimately attitude, fitness, bravado and a little bit of luck will decide the winner.

PS. For the record, Romain Bardet’s team, AG2R, confirmed that he would not be using disc brakes on stage nine.

PPS. Considering the pedalling action of Froome when he went on to win in Luchon last year, perhaps we could also start to contemplate the use of dropper posts for descents - but that’s another column for another time.