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Le Tour Stage 8: High Mountain Madness

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It's another edition of "Tourmalet and Friends!"

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Stage 8: Pau -- Bagnères-de-Luchon, 184km

I have to say, eight stages is not a long wait for the real action to begin. Bring it on!

What's It About?

The 2016 Tour de France heads into the Pyrenees to begin the battle for overall supremacy in Paris. It's actually the second of four such stages, with today's amuse bouche getting a few people's legs loosened up but no great change to the overall (save for Thibaut Pinot, who suffered a mysterious loss of form and is out of contention at the moment). The final day reaches Souvenir Henri Desgrange for the highest point in the Tour de France (although see my piece yesterday for why that's a somewhat ironic name), but then heads down to the valley toward a flat conclusion. So really, we have two classic Pyrenean stages on tap, and anything can happen over the weekend.

AmyBC's Food and Wine Pairings

Wine: Domaine Philemon Jurancon Noir Cotes de Tarn

From the importer:

Domaine Philémon is located in Villeneuve-sur-Vere, a small village on the Vere river in between Albi and Cordes in the northeast quadrant of the Gaillac appellation. The Vieules family have had a vineyard in Villeneuve since 1804. Today the vineyard is run by Mathieu Vieules who grows wheat, sunflowers and grapes in equal proportions. All of his land is farmed organically with the vineyard being certified in 2013.

Food: Espellette pepper

Thekitchn tells me that:

Espelette peppers are harvested in early August and by September, much of the harvest has been ground to a powder or made into piment-based jam or jelly, piment-infused oil or sea salt. Piment d'Espelette is a 4/10 on the Scoville scale, and its fruity, prickly heat infuses a classic poulet basquaise, perks up roast potatoes, a piece of cod or a plate of eggs. And chefs all over France use it in place of black pepper to garnish any number of preparations by adding color, flavor and a bit of sass. Piment d'Espelette has been an AOC-designated product since 1999 and 10 areas surrounding Espelette are allowed to label their product with the official name. Every October, the Celebration of Peppers takes place in the village of Espelette.

Course Features

Personally, I always like to start with a map, to get my bearings. The start location is Pau, which will be hosting a stage of the Tour for the 68th time, third in the record books behind Paris and Bordeaux. The town lies a mere 40km from the Pyrenees, more or less, and the Palois seem happy to have the Tour there pretty much every year. It certainly makes for hard stages.

Stage 8 map

And this one is no exception.

Stage 8 profile

The Peloton makes a beeline for the Col du Tourmalet, making its 85th appearance in the Tour and ranking #2 in difficulty for the entire Tour, on the échelle de Will. Here's what our esteemed Recon Expert had to say about the array of climbs:

Unlike many recent Tourmalet stages with distant downhill finishes, the final summit here may be close enough to the end to make things exciting. Note, we're climbing the better, scenic side of Tourmalet - La Mongie ski station is on the descent. That means that your favourite TV announcers will perform the annual recitation of the Eugène Christophe "forge story" after the downhill. Hourquette 'd'Ancizan is a lovely little climb, introduced to the Tour only recently as an alternative to the also ever-present Col d'Aspin. Col de Val Louron-Azet is actually called Col d'Azet but some ski station marketing jerk has paid a few euros for the name change - moo. The final climb, Col de Peyresourde, is a classic "passing through" climb. I believe this is its 65th Tour appearance, without ever a summit finish. The descent is open, wide, and not particularly hard. Hug the top tube stuff.

All of this suggests that the riders will have to make the race, and it's possible they will decide it's not worth really making it at all. But the list of contenders will shrink, no matter what.

Riders to Watch

All of the usual suspects can be expected to take part in this intense mountain battle, with Team Sky and Movistar expected to exert control over the GC group until one of them runs out of matches to burn. Which probably won't be on Stage 8. Both teams have shown great strength so far, particularly Sky, and with this being the opening salvo my guess is that nobody views this stage as a place to put it all on the line.

For starters, there are SOOOOO many climbing stages remaining. Like, the next day, to Andorra/Arcalis, featuring five climbs and an HC mountaintop finish. The lack of an MTF here also diminishes its importance, and 16km of descending, which Will describes as not very technical, suggests that it will be hard for anyone to hold a gap unless it's a breakaway that's been let off the leash. So while all the big names will be here, doing something, that something might be more like keeping an eye on each other and their own powder dry.

Froome is the obvious person to watch, as the former winner, the guy on the best team, and the guy who made his case last year as early as possible. So in theory you could see him deliver a blow right away, or perhaps a day later. But he might also be concerned about his third week concessions to Quintana in his two Tour wins, and might be saving himself for the far bigger prizes available in the coming weeks.

N.b., the Green Jersey will be contested to some degree on the day, but it is unlikely to change hands for a while, if at all. Suddenly Mark Cavendish's ability to wear it into Paris, or pass it on to Marcel Kittel, is getting interesting. But, the Sprintermediate on stage 8 happens after about 6.5km of climbing on the lower slopes of the Tourmalet. Peter Sagan is 29 points back of Cavendish, and there will be 20 points up for grabs, so if the early break isn't too large -- or Sagan is in it -- the World Champion could shrink that gap some.

The KOM jersey will also be massively changed by tomorrow's stage. Thomas De Gendt and Greg Van Avermaet share the current lead with 13 points, but the Tourmalet alone is worth 25, with another 25 remaining on the next three climbs (plus of course minor placings). Who will make it into a breakaway is anyone's guess, but assuming Van Avermaet finally reaches the end of his climbing ability, De Gendt remains a threat, along with Dani Navarro, Rafal Majka, Vincenzo Nibali, and anyone else who secretly covets this iconic prize but hasn't scored a point yet.

Oh, and the yellow jersey will probably go to the stage winner. Currently Van Avermaet is the only rider ahead on GC versus the expected favorites, who are bunched up behind him. Whoever comes out of that group is a good bet to take yellow, though that group alone is 20 riders strong, with another 15 or so lurking not far behind.

Pick to Win

Valverde. There are enough uphill kms to dissuade anyone but the top guys coming into the finish for the stage. And he can sprint.