After the experiments with new climbs, gravel traverses and short stages, the final mountain stage of the 2018 Tour de France is a return to a very traditional stage. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of tradition; these are tough roads and challenging climbs. In fact, we’re doing three-quarters of the circle of death, ascending and descending Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque (the Peyresourde was the warm-up for stage 17, on our previous visit to the Pyrennees - before yesterday’s inexplicable trip to Pau, which Conor has dissected). That’s a lot of climbing.
Before we get into the runners and riders, the mountains may be well known, but it is worth a quick look at them individually. Leaving Lourdes, the riders head through the village of Bagneres de Bigorre, of which I’m fond because I love Tony Hawks’ book (the comic, not the skater) set there. There’s a few bumps and a general upward trend before the hills begin in earnest after 60km or so. First up is Aspin:
Before we finish things off with the Aubisque, the final points in the year’s King of the Mountain atop this hors-categorie old stager:
If you’re after climb details and stunning photos, you already know to turn to Will’s invaluable preview. If you’re a seasoned watcher of the Tour, you know these climbs. In brief, Aspin (for these guys) will be little more than a leg-softener that will allow the break to go clear (or further clear) and the grupetto to get out of the way. The Tourmalet is the toughest of the three and fourth-toughest of the whole Tour. As the meat in the mountain sandwich, it’ll be the spot where any long-range attacks are launched, where team resources are tested, and where the bigs watch each other closely for signs of weakness.
Then, the finale, the Aubisque. This is a “climb – descend - climb more - descend - climb more” climb. I quite like those – it can be difficult to find a rhythm, there are slopes and moments to attack, areas where the field can come back together, and all sorts of tactical options. What it is not, however, is a mountain designed to make it easy to put minutes into a strong rider. Which is good news for precisely one man in the field. The finish is not atop the climb, either, there’s twenty kilometres downhill to cover before the race is done.
We’ll get into who’ll be winning in a moment. First, a wine recommendation.
Amy’s wine of the day
Domaine Ameztia Irouleguy
The San Francisco Wine Trading Company says: The Costera family has been producing wine since the 17th century, most of which was sold off. In 2001 Jean-Louis Costera built a new facility with the intention of crafting world-class Irouleguy and they haven’t looked back. The wine has golden apple, ripe pear, hints of honeysuckle and a stony minerality.
This has all the trappings of a “two for the price of one” day, with a break clearing the top of the Aubisque and being most of the way back down before the bigs reach the summit, so we get to watch two finishes. Yeah, I can’t see the break being brought back on Friday. Why? First because the odds are excellent that it’ll be a large break with some decent climbers now shorn of individual or team responsibilities. Second because I can’t see the bigs emptying the tanks entirely with a tough time trial to follow on Saturday.
As someone tasked with finding a winner, this is something of a problem. It is easy to pick some of the guys who’ll be in the break (Barguil, Alaphilippe, de Gendt) and to work out which teams will be rolling the dice (Direct Energie) and which won’t (Sky). Harder, though, is to find the rider who’ll have the legs to go 200km, clear three big climbs, and descend well, before possibly taking a sprint. Especially if that rider has to be given carte blanche by both the peloton and his DS, and especially with 18 stages in the legs.
De Gendt is certainly a consideration. So are Alaphilippe and Barguil, though I suspect tiredness and the volume of climbing will see to the former, and lack of form to the latter. I’d love it to be David Gaudu, and he looked impressive on stage 17, but this might be too much too soon for the star-in-waiting. There’ll be at least one Izagirre up there, probably two, and either could succeed. Nieve and Yates (if he’s recovered from his tumble) are over-qualified stage hunters at this point. Pierre Rolland enjoys a mountain break but won’t be there at the finish. Bauke Mollema might be let go by the peloton, whilst Marc Soler and Robert Gesink will be hoping they aren’t on team-duty. There’s a bunch of names. I’ll go with Mikel Nieve, who has proved he can will from a late in the race break. This would give Frosty the trifecta of grand tour stage wins.
What about the overall? Well, Geraint Thomas looked totally bullet proof on Wednesday, and it didn’t look like Dumoulin had the form to drop him. Taking two minutes in a time trial is a huge ask, but it is probably a better use of resources than trying too hard to drop him on these climbs. I think we’ll see him launch some speculative attacks, but not sustained or successful ones. Primoz Roglic, chasing third and looking better than Chris Froome, is a better chance, with Stevan Kruijswijk, the best non-Sky number two in the race, to assist. He’ll have to decide whether to attack now or to try and find 16 seconds in the time trial. I think he’ll attack here and might even grab second. He’s looked awfully good so far this Tour. The purer climbers, like Quintana and Bardet, will have to go for it, but I don’t see them getting very far.