To say a grand tour is back loaded is akin to saying the sun shines brightly or gravity exists. No organizer wants a processional through the final week of a race to be a procession, a winner ordained days before and the rest of the race left to minor plot lines starring lesser placings. The race is supposed to be tight until the final week, and then that week is supposed to break riders down, elevate others, and then alter those affected the next day. We are supposed to have Lemond and Fignon in 1989, lead swinging back and forth almost daily. In less exciting years, a clearly stronger favorite instead uses the final week to run away from the competition, much as Chris Froome has done on every summit finish and time trial thus far this year. But the pattern is the same - the harshest week is the last week.
That said, if a route were ever designed to crack a contender in the final week, this is it. Including Sunday's finish atop Mont Ventoux, there are three summit finishes on hors categorie climbs, one finish immediately after the short descent of a category one climb, and one time trial... all within the last seven days of meaningful racing before the processional into Paris in seven days time. Wednesday through Saturday are all GC action, all the time. All. The. Time.
Wednesday is a time trial with two substantial climbs in it - nothing so steep the all rounders can't get over it quickly, but sufficient to give the climbers like Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador a way to avoid losing yet another two minutes to Froome. Thursday is the much vaunted double ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez, the first time a stage has ever climbed the mythical climb twice in one day. This 100th running of the Tour is pulling out no stops to better its past versions, that is certain. And if you thought the fun stopped there, Friday ends the stage after a wicked seven kilometer descent off the Category 1 Col de la Croix Fry. It's too bad Vincenzo Nibali is sitting this Tour out, for that stage has his name written all over it. Saturday is the last day of GC battling with a summit finish never before used in le Tour, the climb to Annecy - Semnoz. Don't forget the twilight criterium on the Champs - Élysées on Sunday either.
Phew! I hope you weren't planning on getting any work done during the mornings this week. Or afternoons, if you're overseas. And as for you Aussies? I pity you and the abuse your espresso machines are sure to endure this week.
The course offers up exciting stage after stage, but what will come of it ultimately? Will we have a snooze fest as Chris Froome pads his lead even more and eventually begins to purely ride defensively? The climbing stages might be exciting if Quintana - the only rider who is in the same time zone as Froome when the road points uphill - were higher on the general classification, but he suffered large time losses, first when he was sent up the road early on Stage 8 to weaken Sky and help his team leader Alejandro Valverde's chances and then in the flat time trial on Stage 11. But with Froome head and shoulders above, their allure could stem mainly from the views rather than the racing action. Chances for breakaways to survive are slim too, much to the chagrin of Sylvain Chavanel and like minded barodeurs.
Bike racing is not so simple, though. Surprises will come, and while it is unlikely that they displace Froome from race leadership, they will make at least some of the stages a pleasure to watch. Riders who have remained steadfast will crack. All eyes will be on Bauke Mollema, the Dutch rider on Belkin Pro Cycling, to see if he is the one who falters. His record in prior grand tours is spotty, though he does have 4th place finish in the 2011 Vuelta a España under his belt. That Vuelta, it was nuts in the final week, so maybe this kid has staying power. The rider sitting right behind Mollema - Alberto Contador - seems to be gaining some steam as the race goes on, though the leaps and bounds he will need to take more than four minutes out of Chris Froome are those which come to fruition over a season, not a week. Should Mollema crack, Contador is waiting to grab second.
The riders behind Froome have not given up yet, though, which means we should be so lucky as to witness spirited battles for stages as they try to pry time out of him and the other contenders. Nairo Quintana will win a stage - mark my words - and I have a sneaking suspicion it will be the penultimate one above Annecy. And that stage that climbs the Alpe twice? I have a feeling it will go to Contador. Unaccustomed to losing grand tours, he already demonstrated his willingness race unconventionally when his team split an already splintered peloton in the fierce crosswinds of Stage 13. Two years ago, Contador was in a similar situation, sitting in fourth position going into a short, climb heavy stage to Alpe d'Huez. He attacked early in the stage, throwing caution to the wind. With good descending skills, he is likely to give it some stick on the Col de la Sarenne and the technical descent following. I hear there may be rain this week, which would definitely embolden the Spainard.
More will happen for sure, but these are the moments I will be looking forward to. And hopefully, the final week will prove the excitement we all thought it could when the route was announced months and months ago. Will you raise a nice glass of French wine to that with me? And then tell me what you are most looking forward to?