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TDF 2010: Week #3 Up Close

After two weeks of bike racing in France next July, the GC should still be up in the air, but a little trip to the Pyrenees should settle any and all GC issues. Ask any experienced Grand Tour rider and they’ll tell you that the race is won in the last week – and the closing week of the 2010 Tour is not for the faint hearted!

The 2010 Tour de France will be an intriguing blend of all that makes the Tour great: blazing fast finishes, quirky route selections, and our sport’s most famous roads. The first week will give the sprinters and hardmen their due, and it will surely put great stress on the GC riders to make it through in one piece with their hopes of overall glory still intact. The second week in the Alps will see the general classification hopes start to take shape, but this will still only be a primer as we head into the final week. The final week in the Pyrenees is what the Tour de France looks like in 6th gear, full-on, au bloc racing.

The final week of the 2010 Tour de France.

Two mountaintop finishes after difficult days along with two other difficult days in the mountains in (what should be) the sweltering sun of late July. If those four days in the Pyrenees aren’t enough to make sure things are well enough accounted for in the overall standings, there’s the penultimate stage time trial to make sure things are set and a Tour champion poised to assume his crown the next day in Paris.

Stage 14: Revel – Ax-3 Domaines, 184km
Ed gives us the stage details: Let’s start with stage 14 on Sunday 18:07, from Revel (eight times a stage town) to the ski resort of AX-3 Domaines (three times a stage town). The stage profile is predominantly skywards, ‘lumpy’ early in the stage before becoming positively vertiginous on the 15 kilometre 8.1% Port de Pailheres with around 60 of the 184 kilometres to ride, before rearing to the finish over 7.9 kilometres at 8.3% and 1,373 metres. It all say says, ‘Alberto’ to me!

Jered: If it says Alberto to Ed, it says 2003 to me. Stage 14 is a carbon copy of the finale of the stage where Lance Armstrong nearly lost Yellow after attacks from Vinokourov and Ullrich. Carlos Sastre took the day and popped in his pacifier as he crossed the line.

You remember Sastre’s victory salute at Ax-3 Domaine’s, don’t you?

As the Tour heads into a string of stages commemorating the past, this stage is one of the present. Christian Prudhomme calls it a “novelty in the first of the four Pyrenean stages: two ‘modern’ as an alternative to ‘historical’ climbs.”

The Pailheres/Bonascre duo is a deadly one. There is little doubt that this will be a decisive stage. I feel like this could be one of the top three most important stages of the 2010 Tour. If we get a tenth of the drama we got that hot day in 2003, we’ll be falling off the edge of our seats.

Stage 15: Pamiers – Bagneres-De-Luchon, 187km
Take it away, Ed: Stage 15 on Monday 19:07 with 187 kilometres from Pamiers (a new stage town) to Bagneres-de-Luchon (50 times a stage town) is another day of hell for the big men; albeit the last 20 kilometres off the top of the 1,755 metre Port de Bales are downhill.

On the way to the summit however, the coureurs have to tackle the Col du Portet d’Aspet and Col des Ares. A hard one to call; a lot can happen on 20K downhills.

Jered: I like the looks of this stage. It’s ok to end off of a descent, it’s just not so decisive when it’s 60k to the line following the last climb (see next stage). This stage, however, will be a mountaintop intermediate sprint of sorts followed by an intense final exam on descending skills and just how desperate the riders will be to get to the line as quickly as possible – whether it be to consolidate gains or pull back as many lost seconds as possible.

The climb of the Portet d’Aspet is one of the true original Tour de France climbs. It is also the site of Fabio Casartelli’s memorial.

This is a special stage in the annals of Tour de France history. The town of Bagneres-de-Luchon gained a two extra words in the past 100 years, but before that, in 1910, it was called Luchon, and it was the stage finish for the Tour’s first foray in the mountains. That day, the race crossed the Portet d’Aspet and Ares passes. This year, they’ll cross those two passes plus a more recent addition, used for the first time in 2007, the Bales.

Stage 16: Bagneres-De-Luchon – Pau, 196km
As always, Ed: Stage 16 on Tuesday 20:07 from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau (62 times a stage town) starts in the most brutal of fashions – straight into the 11 kilometre and 7.4% Col de Peyresourde, the Aspin and monstrous Tourmalet follow in quick succession. The summit of the 2,115 metre Tourmalet marks the Souvenir Jacques Goddet prime – a hefty stash of euros awaits the first rider across the Tour’s highest point.

The twin Soulor and Aubisque follow; but the organisers have given shattered bodies an almost 60 K downhill run (out of 196) in to Pau to try to close the gaps. Another difficult one to predict, without a crystal ball – again, a lot can happen on a 60 K downhill.

Jered: I’m just going to put these few words in only to introduce a quote from Graeme Fife in the first issue of Rouleur:

“In 1910, the Tour riders rode a 289km stage from Perpignan to Luchon over the cols de Port, Portet d’Aspet, Ares, then a mammoth stage, from Luchon to Bayonne of 326km. Crossing the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque. On roads that are no better than tracks for donkeys and packhorses, worn by use, the surface strewn with stones and fallen rocks, perilous at every point. Treacherous in the descents, narrow, pitted with ruts and potholes and deep hollows gouged by logs dragged by foresters’ mules, choking with dust in dry conditions, awash with mud in the wet. Adding in the ever-present threat of hungry wild bears on the prowl, this imposing ring of cols, Peyresourde to Aubisque, came to be known as the ‘Circle of Death’.”

Indeed, the Circle of Death. Does it get any better than that? You can’t come up with a better name for a series of climbs.

This isn’t just a stage for the ancients though. It’s a stage of legend: Eddy Merckx brought the Circle of Death to the fore again in 1969 en route to his first Tour de France victory. Merckx escaped with 100km to go and arrived to the finish in Mourenx with 8 minutes in hand.

What can we expect this year? Nada. I just don’t see this being a selective stage. Sure, it oozes history, but it’s not a stage for the 21st century. A break should certainly decide this stage, but the favorites will arrive together.

Gord is a little more hopeful of the stage’s prospects: Stage 16 is the stand-out day for me, with the Col de Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and then the Col d’Aubisque lining up to smash the contenders. This is the classic stage that saw the emergence of the Eddy Merckx cult. Not sure if there will be anything to rival what Merckx did back in ’69, but we can dream. Should be a cracker, and then a nice day off in Pau to recover. Lovely!

Rest Day #2
Wednesday 21:07 is the second rest day; it’ll be a fidgety 24 hours, though – why? Three words explain the anxiety; ‘the Tourmalet, again!’

Stage 17: Pau – Col Du Tourmalet, 174km
Ed introduces the King Stage: Thursday 22:07 and stage 17 is from Pau to – the top of the massive Tourmalet; that’s 174 kilometres by way of the Marie Blanc and Soulor climbs. This is only the second time that a stage has finished atop the monster, albeit the race has been over it 73 times.

19 kilometres at 7.4% conclude this infernal roller coaster of a stage. The ‘experts’ will say that despite its height and length, there are tougher climbs – no doubt, but at this stage of the race it will search deep into tired souls for signs of weakness. Mountaintop finishes define the Tour; there’s no descent to risk all on and make up lost ground – and no one knows this better than the climbers, who are motivated to inflict deep wounds on their less waif like rivals. The Tourmalet – a Tour legend, if I’m any judge, Contador will want to be part of that.

Up, up, up to the Tourmalet.

Al: The Pyrenees will sort it all out, the stage finishing on the summit of the Col du Tourmalet is made for the talents of Alberto Contador, it comes after the last rest day and there will be more fresh legs for the battle, but it will be the last day of overall action, either it will be the confirmation of yellow or the last chance saloon.

The finish midway up the Tourmalet at La Mongie has provided some thrilling racing, but the top of the Tourmalet should put duels, like the one between Armstrong and Basso in 2004, to shame.

Jered: There’s no doubt about it – this is the premiere stage of the 2010 Tour de France. The Tourmalet is a climb of legend. Finally, it gets the finish it deserves – atop its mighty summit. I can’t wait for the stage, and I can’t wait to see the pictures Cor Vos gets.

Stage 18: Salies-De-Bearn – Bordeaux, 190km
Ed: Friday 23:07 stage 18 and the climbing is over; Salies-de-Bain (getting a stage for the second time) to Bordeaux (which will receive the Tour for the 80th time – second only to Paris), 190 kilometres – with many of these K’s providing hot, pointless suffering for the suicide break of the day. This is a sprinter’s day; if it was the mid seventies, all my cash would be on Barry Hoban. Davis Phinney has won here too – does that mean Cav or Tyler, this time? Probably!

With so many finishes in Bordeaux to choose from, I went to the rider I miss: Erik Zabel took the day in Bordeaux in 1997.

Jered: This is a classic sprinter’s finish in Quinconces Square. Many of the great sprinters have won here in Bordeaux. It would be a shame to see a break steal the sprinters’ day. If the Green Jersey is tight though, say with Hushovd leading, you can bet that it will only be Columbia on the front of the race. The sprints only seem to get more complicated the stronger Cavendish gets. The faster Cav gets, the more powerful his team must become, because they’re up everyday for an 8-man TTT against an always motivated breakaway group…and no one else wants to help Cav to another easy victory.

Stage 19: Bordeaux – Pauillac, 51km
Saturday 24:07 and stage 19 from Bordeaux to Pauillac (it’s first day on the Tour) this is the heart of wine country, but it’s also the final day that anything significant can happen. The overall winner will almost certainly be decided before these 51 kilometres of pain – it’s too much to hope for that it would all be down to today! – but there will be plenty to fight for a little further down the GC. And don’t forget the chrono men who have been ‘hiding.’

Alberto Contador showed in 2009 that he is a man not only for the mountains, but the time trials as well.

Jered: It only seems to be in the rarest of circumstances that the Tour’s final long time trial amounts to any real suspense, but back in 2007 it sure did. Contador, Levi, and Evans all started the stage with a real shot at the overall. We can only hope for something along those lines to finish up the 2010 edition. If routine is the name of the game, this will be a final day for the Tour winner to consolidate his lead and head into Paris triumphant. It’s hard not to see Alberto Contador in this position come July.

Gord: Bourdeaux to Pauillac offers us a pretty fascinating TT to wrap things up. Heading to the coast, possibly windy conditions to deal with, rolling roads … it’ll be technical enough that the riders will have to concentrate all the way. You’ve got to keep it together physically and mentally today or you could end up doing a ‘Rasmussen 2006’ kind of podium disappearing act.

Stage 20: Longjumeau – Paris, 105km
Sunday 25:07 sees stage 20 from Lonjumeau (another first timer) to Paris, with the 105 kilometres ending on the Champs Elysees. In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields were the final resting place of the heroic and virtuous – indeed!

No matter what you might think about each specific edition of the Tour de France, the stage into Paris is always a beautiful one.

…and well worth a couple of parting shots as we close out this preview of the 2010 Tour de France.

If things continue as they are now, we can expect another Cavendish triumph on the Champs Elysees.

And, if we’re lucky, the green jersey won’t be decided!

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