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Tour Stage 14: Make do and Mende

Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux – Mende (188km)

Corbis via Getty Images

On the stage

Cycling races take ages. Even longer than cricket. So long, in fact, that they spill out of the weekends and evenings where most sport happens, and fill our weekdays. One day races avoid this by putting the biggest events (World Champs, monuments) at weekend, although races like E3 can be difficult. The Giro can’t do that, but the organisers make an effort to put the biggest stages at the weekend.

The Tour? Not so much. Stage 8 gave us cobbles and entertainment last Sunday, but stages one and two were pretty dull, and stage 7 was, in technical terms, shite. The Alps went by while most people were at work. The Pyrennees will do the same next week. Thanks, ASO. Thanks for that.

However: stage 14 looks pretty good to me. We leave Three Houses of St Paul (which I assume is an ecclesiastical dig at hypocritical austerity, like calling John Prescott “two jags”) and have around 100km of bumpy but not especially tough roads that meander westwards along the Ardeche valley. Thing is, though, if you follow a river upstream long enough, there’s a decent chance you’ll start going uphill. Sure enough, that’s what happens, and we spend the second half of the stage climbing through the Cevennes national park. Expect pretty scenery and fairly short, steep climbs. This is tough.

The three classified climbs that will count are the cat-2 Berthel (a sedate 5% for 9km), the Pont sans Eau (it is infrastructure week in France, apparently) – a cat-3 at 6% for 3km and then the bruising finale, a 3km climb that spends most of the time in double-digits. This could be a springboard for dropping riders if the desire is there. There’s not much flat after the climb to the finish in Mende. To put it in context, last time they rode this was 2015, when Cummings won ahead of Pinot, Bardet, Uran and Sagan. Not a mountain, but no kind of bunch sprint.

So, who does this stage favour? Well, the answer is, I suspect, the best climbers in the breakaway that I see going well clear and staying away - it is too late in the race for there to be much interest in closing it down. Who will be up there? I haven’t a clue. We could start with the riders looking to pick up King of the Mountain points, and there’s nothing in this profile that will scare Julian Alaphilippe, leading the spotty competition by 14 points but struggling on the longer passes. I think this will suit him and it’d be a shock if he wasn’t there. Warren Barguil may feel he has to go with him, though these aren’t really his roads.

When you talk about breakaway stages you have to look at Lotto Soudal, and I see Jelle Vanendert as liking this finale, though Thomas de Gendt should never be ignored, even though he went early on stage 13. A couple of other names selected partly at random from a long list that makes some sense? Nicolas Edet and Gerard Muhlberger. Why not?

The larger question, though, is what happens on GC. I think the two to watch are Romain Bardet and Dan Martin. The sharp climb will suit their style and the lack of team support is less significant on the shorter passes. I can see both trying to make up time. Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome would like to put time into Geraint Thomas, but this doesn’t look like the place for them to do it. I can see a few moves in the top ten, but I think gaps in the big three will be unchanged going into the weekend.

Alaphilippe is my winner. On to the drinks.

Spotty socks, please, Julian!
AFP/Getty Images

Amy’s wine of the day

The wine: Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet (Herve Souhaut) Souteronne 2016

This is a treat. I’ve enjoyed every wine I’ve tried from this producer I’ve tried. Hervé Souhaut created Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet in 1993. Hervé works 5-hectares of old and ancient vines—between 50 to 100 years old.

On the Tour

I was vocal early in the Tour about Geraint Thomas being a back-up plan, at best, for Team Sky. Not co-leaders, I said. Froome clearly the guy they’ll be supporting, I said. Wait until after stage 12, I said. Well, we’re a long way into the race now, the Alps are in the rear view mirror, G is in yellow and Froome is 99 seconds back. Suddenly, I’ve gone quiet. Why?

Because I’ve been busy. Not shame, not hiding from the critics. Just life getting in the way. Surely, though, I’m now going to ‘fess to thinking G is the favourite?

I’ve witnessed your suffering / As the battle raged higher / And though they did hurt me so bad / In the fear and alarm / You did not desert me / My brothers in arms
AFP/Getty Images

Nope. Now I think they probably are co-leaders. I don’t think G will be asked to sacrifice his chances for Froome any more, but equally, I think Froome is still the likelier winner. Yes, 13 stages are done. That means there’s still seven left that count, plus a procession. There are lots of days where 99 seconds could disappear. In fact, let’s have a look.

Stage 14 – discussed above. No more than a few seconds, unless someone has a serious jour sans.

Stage 15 – hard to see either G or Froome getting dropped, despite a cat-1.

Stage 16 – tough day coming off a rest. Could be gaps.

Stage 17 – short and brutal stage. Could well be gaps.

Stage 18 – flat, very unlikely to be gaps.

Stage 19 – lots of mountains, yes, but doesn’t look gap-friendly, unless there’s a jour sans.

Stage 20 – the ITT. Obviously gaps are expected. Thomas is a more that decent chrono-man, as befits a double Olympian on the track and TT national champ. Under normal circumstances, it’d be close with the Welshman as a favourite. After three weeks… well, let’s see.

Doom is lurking. This is like a two-man break – the worst G and F can do is look at each other, they need to keep riding for the line. I think the road will decide. Despite his advantage, and despite him looking great in the Alps, I still think Froome will finish above Thomas on GC. He’s more likely to peak in the third week, much less likely to have a jour sans, and less likely to fall. However, Thomas has every chance of winning; I was wrong to be quite so dismissive earlier in the race.

Will Froome beat Doom? I’ll save that for a rest day conversation…