For the 35th time in the race’s history, all eyes are on the hors catégorie Col d’Izoard. The summit at 2,360m comes after a 19km long climb with an average gradient of 6.9 per cent, with a maximum of 8.9 per cent. Just how many matches have been burned on Wednesday and who can stand the heat?
Twenty-seven seconds separate race leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) from second and third-placed Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Romain Bardet (AG2R). Fabio Aru (Astana) back in fourth place, 53-seconds in arrears of Froome. The closeness of the contenders heading into the summit finish of the Col d’Izoard pointing towards the Marseille ITT being the decisive factor for who stands atop the podium in Paris.
Never before has a Tour stage reached its conclusion at the summit of this mythical climb but the ghosts of cycling’s storied past remain ever-present on these harsh slopes. From the pioneers in 1922, Coppi and Bobet in the 40s and 50s, Thévenet and Merckx in 75, LeMond and Hinault in 86, cycling’s most famous names have played their cards in this desolate landscape.
The climb has traditionally been used en route to a different finale – Risoul, Briançon, a blisteringly hot Gap in 2003 to name a few. The experience of Andy Schleck in 2011, when the Izoard was prior to a Galibier finish, just might ring true for our contenders this year.
Schleck found hope in the hair pinned wastelands, attacking the climb to move into second overall behind yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler. It was a solo attack that would ultimately deliver one of the highlights of his career. His rivals, including eventual Tour winner Cadel Evans, not following in the Luxembourger’s wheel. It was a bold move. The younger Schleck had come under fire, and not unjustly, for watching the other contenders for yellow, rather than attacking them outright. The gradients of over 10 per cent on the final 5km of the climb didn’t deter Schleck and he kicked a solid minute into his rivals.
Team Sky and Froome’s dominance at the Tour particularly over the last three years have all too often suffocated any challengers. Their relentless pace in the key moments leaving little in the tank when rivals attempt an attack, and an invisible rope reels them back to the group. As Froome attempts a fourth Tour victory, it’s this year when cracks have begun to show – whether it’s down to form, that lessons have been learned or a combination of both – a select few riders have a genuine shot at bringing that dominance to a halt. Mikel Landa was able to leave him behind earlier in the race and on the Galibier, looked nonchalant. Consider him back in the fold for now after rumblings on the Peyragudes.
It was painfully obvious on the Galibier that solo attacks on Froome and Landa do not work with Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) and Bardet clawed back. Yellow jersey hopefuls will need to work together against Froome to have any chance at an upset. Of the top three, Uran did the least amount of work, following Froome’s wheel and letting Bardet and Martin attack. Should Froome head to the time trial with less than a minute’s advantage, it’s game on.
Evans went into the Grenoble time trial 57 seconds behind Schleck, only to have the Australian blast ahead at the finish line by 2min30sec. Every second will count on the Izoard, and then some.