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Tour Stage 5: Time for a Test

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Vittel - La Planche des Belles Filles (160.5 km)

Nibali Planche des Belles Filles JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

It must be a television director's dream, the top of La Planche des Belles Filles. The finish line camera shows only tarmac and treeline, until whoever has proved the strongest heaves into view, having crested the twenty-two percent gradient hit in the final three hundred metres to finally catch a glimpse of the goal. So who'll be the first to see the line tomorrow?

Carte

Profil de l’étape

Everyone fills their bidons in Vittel before heading south to the Vosges. Once there, the race heads towards the Ballon d'Alsace, before taking a detour — this was never intended to be a real mountain stage as stage ten in 2014 was, rather closer to the seventh stage of the 2012 Tour, where Chris Froome first made a mark on the race.

Really, the only obstacle of the stage comes in the form of La Planche des Belles Filles. You know, one of Christian Prudhomme's favourite things in the world, after the idea of non-prologues, his "come on Fortuneo, make a pointless attack" flag, and annoying the UCI. It’s steep at the start, steep in the middle and even steeper at the top, with sections above ten per cent scattered through. There's no way to say where an attack is most likely to come - in 2014 the race shattered early on, unlike Sky's first show of dominance here in 2012, where they kept it together until the last few hundred metres.

AmyBC’s Wine of the Day – Binner Pinot Noir

Christy from Copake says: I have one hidden away from a past Feiring Line Wine Society.
Christy and Alice are both fans? I'm in. From the importer:
The Binner estate was established in 1770, the family has holdings in two of the most valuable growing sites in Alsace; around the Kaefferkopf Grand Cru and plots in Ammerschwihr. The Binner family owns nine hectares and only six of those hectares are under vine.
The vines average age is 35-years, where 40% of the vines over 60 years old, and with many rows nearing a 100 years of age. Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Grand Cru Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Auxerrois and Muscat make up the varieties utilized by this estimable domaine.

Did you know?

Vittel has water, amazingly. Actually, so did Verviers. Maybe we'll turn up in Evian-les-Bains later on. Anyway, we got the Vittel story yesterday. Now it's time for La Planche. Here's the interesting story:
Plancher-les-Mines, where the climb starts -> Planche
The nice beech trees along the side of the road combined with a Germanic dialect of French -> Belles Fahys -> Belles Filles.

The other, far more boring story, with way less language etymology involves a load of scary Swedish men chasing women up a mountain, or something. Don't worry about it.

What’s at stake?

The yellow jersey's at stake, now we're finally climbing properly. Geraint Thomas, its current holder, is theoretically a strong enough climber to keep hold of it, but it's by no means certain that he actually will. Froome would go into yellow with the stage victory, in all likelihood, but conventional wisdom would say that that may not be his aim. Sky, in fact, may consider this a good place to lose the jersey, by either letting the early break or a late attacker get far enough ahead to win.

We're not only going to see who can win the Tour de France on this stage, but also who definitely can't. While it's early enough to likely discourage big attacks from the GC guys, the gradients are sufficiently steep to dislodge anyone who has not brought their best form to France this July.

Who’s going to win?

As with any first mountain stage of the Tour, predicting not only who's going to be on form but who's saving that form for later forms most of the challenge of previewing. So what do we know so far? We know Richie Porte's willing to attack, and we know that he's able to attack with enough power to at least briefly gap Contador. We know Rafał Majka’s turned up with at least enough form to chase Porte down. We know Dan Martin's got a bit of zip in his legs. We know Sky have brought at least two guys who can easily be in yellow by the end of tomorrow. And we don't know a whole lot else.

What does that leave us with? Guesswork, mainly. And my guess is that Porte is going to make his mark here. He's very probably one of the two strongest climbers in the race, and the one with by far the most to prove. Some aggressive racing from him here seems rather likely, and aggression combined with the amount of ability he brings is a winning formula on this stage.
To mention Porte as a possible winner is to admit that Froome has a chance as well, and given that he's won on what was essentially the same stage, that comes as a given, but Froome has ridden this entire season like a man who has nobody to convince, and the idea of him burning too many matches here, a climb on which you can by no means win the Tour de France, seems quite unlikely. In each Tour that he's won, however, Froome has made a big impression early, and this is a chance to do that if he sees the chance.

Those are the two biggest contenders if this turns into a GC battle, but if we get a bigger group coming into the last kilometre or two it might be hard to bet against Daniel Martin, who, as we all know, has to make use of the first week or two, before he realises that he isn't really all that suited for four Sundays of racing. He'd be the favourite in an uphill sprint on the steep gradients between four or five riders.
Rafał Majka is my fourth choice for this stage. Good positioning and decent form on stage three is no real indicator of success here, but he's a better climber than his GC results in the past might indicate. I'm confident about his GC chances in this race, and he'll make use of any rope given him to take a stage win.
My final pick is Fabio Aru, who's in enough form to take his national jersey. That form hasn't disappeared since, nor has it since he was one of the strongest in the Dauphiné, and he's a rider capable of a savage attack at the top of a difficult climb.
Oh, and I should also mention the chance that a break has. That will be substantially improved by the likely presence of Robert Gesink and Thibaut Pinot.
Porte, however, is my pick to win, and begin to really mount a challenge for this Tour de France.