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Giro St12 Preview: To Fortress Brianзon

Thursday’s 12th stage into France promises to be epic. The finish town of Brianзon – Europe’s highest city at 1327m – has hosted stages in both Le Tour an Il Giro since 1922, and there is simply no easy way to reach this fortified setting in the French Alps…

Story by Guy Wilson-Roberts

If any town can lay claim to being the home of pro cycling in the French Alps, it is surely Brianзon. As the gateway to the region from the south, or the last
stop before leaving from the north, the town has seen its fair share of epic riding battles in the past and will host many more in the future.

At the foot of the legendary Col d’Izoard, Brianзon’s location is fortuitous. The town also has a long history as a military settlement. Remnants of fortifications and spectacular hill-top forts are still visible today, dating from the late 1600s and the responsibility of Louis XIV’s military architect, the Marquis of Vauban. It seems appropriate, therefore, that it should be the host of more modern combatants.

This year, Brianзon will be the arrivйe town for stage 12 of the Giro on May 24, ahead of a mountain ITT and another Alpine stage. The 163-kilometre ride from Scalenghe in Italy will take in two climbs, starting with the 2,774-metre Colle Dell’Agnello before tackling the popular southern approach of the Col d’Izoard at 2,360 metres.

It will be a challenging stage and the Dell’Agnello is the Cima Coppi, the highest point, of this year’s race. The summit comes at the 100 kilometre mark with the route mostly uphill all the way from Scalenghe before the serious climbing starts 20 km from the top. This route last featured in the 2000 edition when it was won by Paolo Lanfranchi of Mapei, just 54″ over Marco Pantani who helped teammate and eventual winner Stefano Garzelli over the d’Izoard – although Garzelli had to wait for the ITT from Brianзon to Sestriere the next day to grab the maglia rosa from Francesco Casagrande.

The barren landscape atop the Col d’Izoard.

Pantani may have been thinking of revenge in 2000, after a high haematocrit reading saw him ejected from the Giro in 1999 when victory seemed assured, opening the podium up for Ivan Gotti. “Bello! It’s a Giro for climbers, a Giro I like,” Gotti said of the 2000 route when it was announced. But his legs were far from up to the task and he finished a dismal 77th on the stage into Brianзon, more than 20 minutes down, sliding from 8th overall to 19th. A 35th the next day in the ITT was little improvement and 19th was his final position in Milano.

The Tour de France has been a frequent visitor to Brianзon and passed through the town last year, on the tough 177-kilometre stage 15 from Gap to l’Alpe d’Huez. The most memorable finish in recent editions of the Tour was in 2000, however, in a race perhaps best remembered for the Pantani/Armstrong duel on Mont Ventoux.

Pantani give Lance a look of his own on the stage to Briancon in the 2000 Tour.

Stage 14 on July 15, 2000 was a leg-numbing 249 kilometres from Draguignan to Brianзon, with 4 categorized climbs including the cat 1 mountains of the Col d’Allos and the Col de Vars, finishing with the hors categorie Col d’Izoard before the final kilometres into Brianзon – the same ascent of the d’Izoard and descent to the finish as this year’s Giro

Colombian rider Santiago Botero, riding for Spanish team Kelme, was part of a breakaway group that led over the Col de Vars, struggling into the wind that
discouraged the chasers. On the d’Izoard, Botero slipped away and had nearly two minutes on the chasers over the summit. On the tight, technical, and brutally fast descent, commentators expected Paolo Savoldelli, ‘Il Falco’, to swoop on Botero for a duel to the finish.

But Botero, himself a more-than-capable descender (as he proved on stage 11 in 2005 – see below), held the gap. The main contenders, with Armstrong and Pantani testing each other on the final stretch to the summit of the d’Izoard, were too far back for a serious chase, but Botero and Savoldelli were flying nonetheless.

On the final 1-kilometre stretch to the line, Botero discovered the final kicker that he may have missed on the stage profile: the finishing straight was steeply uphill from outside the old town to inside the picturesque walled town square. Botero’s climbing style is certainly not graceful, more of a battle with his bike. On this final stretch, his face was a mask of pain as he fought to keep the pedals turning.

But victory was his, after an epic escape, keeping the gap over 2′ from Savoldelli and nearly 3′ from the chasing groups containing the favourites. Placed second in the KOM competition behind teammate Javier Otxoa after the Mont Ventoux stage, Botero told reporters: “I’m going to ask permission to fight for the jersey for our team if it’s the last thing I do.” He must have received permission as he took the maillot а pois rouges in Brianзon and held it all the way to Paris.

Botero almost repeated the double in 2005, this time from the other direction on stage 11 of the Tour from Courcheval. Alexander Vinokourov was first over the summit of the Galibier, the final climb before the long run into Brianзon. Botero, riding for Phonak, showed his descending class by bridging a 30-second gap to former T-Mobile teammate Vino in less than 10 kilometres right at the Col de Lautaret junction. But in the final sprint into town, without the uphill finish, Vino was too strong for the depleted Colombian.

Stage 9 of this year’s Tour is almost a carbon copy of the 2005 route, with the Galibier as the final climb, but this time starting at Val-d‚Isиre. With 50 km from the top of the climb to the finish in Brianзon, and a mostly wide-open road rather than the technical descent from the Col d’Izoard, it will more likely favour a strong rouleur as Vino showed in 2005.

Unfortunately, the Tour will not stay long in Brianзon this year as, somewhat surprisingly, the organizers have chosen to skip the Col d’Izoard by transferring the riders over the climb to the dйpart at Tallard (the small town does have an historic castle, however). It is a shame, as the northern approach – although not as tough as the southern route – is still a worthy climb and is 20 kilometres at between 5 and 6% with some 9% gradient sections towards the summit.

Pic Source: www.ville-briancon.fr

The fabulous mountains race the Dauphinй Libйrй is a regular visitor to Brianзon in June. Last year’s edition saw stage 5 finish in the town with the riders taking in the southern d’Izoard approach. First over the summit Ludovic Turpin from Ag2R claimed the Georges Cazeneuve prize named after the original organizer of the race. Turpin managed to hold on to his lead on the traditional uphill finish in Brianзon, with a 26″ second buffer over a resurgent Iban Mayo.

Brianзon was also the start town for stage 6 the next day, on the way to La Touissuire – taking in the same climbs as the Tour a month later – where Mayo took his revenge to win a tough mountains battle, but not enough to take the lead from eventual race winner Levi Leipheimer.

For now, we have this year’s Giro stage. The southern climb up the Col d’Izoard is a challenging one, made all the more spectacular by the barren landscape. Expect the stronger climbers to open up significant gaps here.

With 20 kilometres from the summit to the finish in Brianзon, though, there is still the opportunity for any breakaway riders to be caught or for escapees to
pulled back. As anyone who has ridden this descent knows, the first few kilometres are a series of tight switchbacks. The road surface is good but the corners come quickly and frequently. As Santiago Botero showed in 2000, a capable descender can take risks and make up time – at least until the road opens up in the valley where strong legs are needed for a very fast run into town.

Perhaps this year Paolo Savoldelli will get his revenge!

• Check out Guy’s home on the web: Le-Grimpeur.net

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