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Tour de France Stage 10 Preview: Opening Day in the Alps

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Le-tour_mediumSo how was your rest day? Was it a crushing disappointment to wake up to no bike racing? Are you tired of doping news? Well, never fear, my friends. For tomorrow, the Tour de France heads to the mountains for the first of three stages in the Alps. That should perk your spirits right up.

Tomorrow's stage 10 runs from Mâcon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine. The stage comes in just under 200 kilometers, and there are three categorized climbs. It all sounds so easy, right?

Not so fast. Tomorrow's stage may only include three categorized climbs, but one of them is the massive col du Grand Colombier. Rated a hors catègorie which is reserved for the most difficult climbs in cycling, the Grand Colombier runs uphill for just over 17 kilometers. It is typical of the passes in the Alps to be long, uphill drags, where the Pyrénées tend to be shorter and more steep. Though the average gradient of the col du Grand Colombier is 7.1%, that doesn't really tell the reality of the thing. The road stairsteps, which makes the average misleading. There are two solid sections of leg-wrenching 12% gradient. Hurts so good, that's what 12% gradients do.

There's a catch, of course, because there always is. The riders reach the summit of the col du Grand Colombier with all those lovely steep ramps with more than 40 kilometers left to race. That's is a very long way from the finish. The climbers will need their creativity if they want to make the Grand Colombier work in their favor.

This is the pattern of the Tour de France mountains this year. They are riddled with truly difficult mountain passes, but the hardest of the climbs come a long way from the finish. This could make for fabulous, tactically interesting racing. Or, it could make for a slogging race of atttrition. Tomorrow, we will begin to find out.

Of course, this stage is more than only the col du Grand Colombier, but the massive pass is certainly the main event. The first 75 kilometers of the stage are actually mostly flat, which is a bit cruel considering the difficulties to come. The Côte de Corlier opens the climbing with 6.4 kilometers of climbing and summits at kilometer 90. It's a nice hors d'oeuvre for the main event. Cruelly, there is no descent after this first climb, and the road bumps along the summit and the riders must climb the uncategorized col de la Lèbe before the road runs blissfully downhill. Podi-tour-4_medium

Around 20 kilometers of descending provide the prelude to the col du Grand Colombier. The Grand Colombier summits at 43 kilometers to go. Only a small group of riders should reach the top of this massive climb together. The road drops precipitously from the summit for slightly less than 15 kilometers.

Then, it's back on with the climbing. The col de Richemond is 7.2 kilometers of climbing goodness. A rider with legs left after the Grand Colombier may want to try his luck here. It's also not a bad place for a team play — if in fact any of the teams have riders left to support their captains. If last year's Tour is anything to go by, the yellow jersey contenders could well reach this final climb mostly without team support.

From the summit of the final climb, there is just under 20 kilometers of racing to go to the finish in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, and it's pretty much all downhill. A small bump interrupts the descending goodness just inside 10 kilometers to go. The descent ends right around the three kilometer mark, and there is a stair-stepping climb to the finish. It'll be an uphill sprint among a very elite group of riders, or if someone gets really exuberant a solo winner.

After the first long time trial of the Tour, Bradley Wiggins wears the yellow jersey of race leader. Cadel Evans sits second at 1:53, a deficit he surely wish was smaller. Evans will have to be creative to make up that kind of time on Wiggins, who so far this season has looked invincible in the stage races. Worst still for Evans, Wiggins has a teammate in Chris Froome sitting third at 2:07. Evans, he is the filling in the Team Sky sandwich. Vincenzo Nibali, a mad descender, is fourth at 2:23, the silent Russian Denis Menchov is fifth at 3:02, and Basque all-arounder Haimar Zubeldia is sixth at 3:19. Everyone else in the bike race is more than four minutes behind Wiggins. Already.

Well, we can look at the bright side or the not bright side. On the bright side, so many riders have lost time in this race, that really, no one, except maybe Cadel Evans, has a thing to lose in attacking like complete idiots. Seriously, dudes, you aren't going to win this bike race any other way. You've already got nothing, so why not attack and try to win? Though this year's Tour is tilted to the time trial specialists, a reality that Wiggins has exploited to his maximum advantage, there is plenty of opportunity to create mayhem in these high mountain stages. Those opportunities start tomorrow with this tactically tricky stage in the Alps.

On the not bright side, the riders could well accept their defeat like sheep and allow Wiggins to march unimpeded for Paris. Seriously, if that happens? Cycling, I don't think we can be friends anymore.

Here is the current general classification. Let's do some time tables, too, shall we? On the fastest time schedule, the riders will reach Béon at the base of the col du Grand Colombier at 15:31 France time. That's 6:31 west coast and 9:31 east coast. Still on the fastest time schedule, the riders should reach the summit of the Grand Colombier by 16:01. That's 7:01 west coast, 10:01 east coast. Finish is 17:02 France time. I'll leave the math on that one to you, my friends.