It begins Wednesday with less than 30 seconds separating yellow jersey Chris Froome (Team Sky), from fourth-placed Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) with the first hors catégorie climb on the agenda a familiar setting for some of our protagonists.
The Tour last visited the Col de la Croix de Fer in 2015, en route to the l’Alpe d’Huez. A breakaway group was given some room, but at the head of the peloton was AG2R-La Mondiale defending the polka dot jersey lead of their man, Romain Bardet, in scenes not dissimilar to the Col de Payra Taillade last weekend. The French charge up the climb in 2015 eventually faded and they will be looking for a stronger showing in Bardet’s bid for yellow this year.
Tellingly in 2015, the last three kilometres of the climb saw attempts by challengers to Froome’s yellow jersey isolate the race leader. Movistar led that flurry with the explosiveness of Alejandro Valverde, something that will be missed this time around, followed closely by Nairo Quintana. The attacks shelled Froome of his support in the form of Richie Porte and Nicholas Roche. Two years on, some of the punch appears to have been taken out of Froome and the Col de la Croix de Fer will be a great illustration of where the three-time Tour winner is at.
Landslides robbed the Tour of a visit to the Galibier in 2015, and so it is that the 2011 race remains the last reference point for the climb from the north side and therefore including the Category 1 Col du Télégraphe.
Should one of the contenders find themselves in difficulty before the summit of the Télégraphe, they would do well to remember the experience of Cadel Evans in 2011. The Australian stepped off his bike twice due to mechanical issues, losing over a minute on the road to Andy Schleck who would ride into yellow that day, recover, and still stand atop the podium in Paris. Of course, much will depend on their time trialling ability and that of their rivals, isn’t that right, Andy?
If the major climbs seen to date on this current edition of the Tour are any indication, expect the contenders to maintain a close watch on their rivals. The Télégraphe should provide the first major reduction in that group, with a short decent allowing minimal time to recover before the relentless climb to the top of the Col du Galibier. The 18km climb to the summit is brutal and the second half rarely drops below a gradient of nine per cent. Should one of the contenders, like Evans experienced in 2011, fall far enough behind the lead, the best team in the world will not bring you back to the front of the race before the summit of the final Hors Categorie climb.
Just four men remained at the front of the race on the Galibier in 2011 – Alberto Contador, Schleck, Rui Costa (Movistar) and Christophe Riblon (AG2R) – the latter duo left from the early breakaway.
Given his past history on these roads, and with reports that this is the Spaniard’s final Tour and he wants to go out with a bang, will Contador choose this stage for an attack? While his efforts are unlikely to effect the GC, given he has a deficit of over five minutes to Froome, Contador may feel the need to reminisce.
Unlike six years ago, the stage will finish in the ski resort of Serre-Chevalier so no long descent into the valley before l’Alpe d’Huez and minimal kilometres for any stragglers to make the catch. Could this mean a repeat of the edge-of-your-seat finale to Stage 9 where Uran claimed a miraculous victory? Don’t rule it out.