Hey, kids, remember planking? Not the exercise, the meme. You, know, the thing where you lie flat on your face in a funny place? Well, not you. Some twit on the internet. A brief moment of googling tells me it was 2011 when this was a thing. I don’t want to overstate the importance of planking, but I will say that it represented almost everything that irritates me about modern culture. Fortunately it died away as quickly as it emerged, like all trends.
Almost all trends, I should say. The ASO, not known for rapid evolution, have found their own trend and stuck to it like glue. Their trend is also a plank. In this case, the Plank of Beautiful Girls. Yes, stage six sees us back at La Planche des Belle Filles for the finale of a stage that meanders westwards through the beautiful Vosges, taking in seven categorised climbs, including our first three cat one ascents. This finish is just about the most on trend thing in the Tour at the moment, featuring for the fourth time since it was introduced in 2012. Planking may have gone, but The Plank remains.
Anyway, we’ll come back to that. Looking at the stage as a whole, there’s one clear message – this is a tough stage. If you remember the 2017 stage to lPdBF (yup. Can’t be bothered any more) then you’re remembering a comparatively easy day in the saddle before the final climb.
The 2014 lPdBF day was far closer to what is in store for 2019. There are some different climbs but the route is very similar and the run in identical. Thus, is worth looking at the results from that day, which hammers home the extent to which this is set up as a GC day, not merely a power climb for stage glory. Say it with me, cliche fans: This isn’t a day to win the Tour, but it is certainly a day to lose it.
The first climb of the day is le Markstein, noteworthy only for fans of Chelsea football (or, if spelled incorrectly, ESPN’s basketball coverage). I can’t believe I’m the only person who did a massive double take at that name. Anyway, it is nearly 11km at five or so percent – a meaningful leg-softener and likely to string out the peloton, but the main impact will be in accumulating fatigue. The cat three Grand Ballon is essentially a steep pitch at the top of Mark Stein’s climb, before a long descent and more leg-softening up the Hundsruck (a little steeper but much shorter than Big Mark) and the Ballon d’Alsace, which is not dissimilar from a combined Markstein-Grand Ballon. It is the penultimate cat one climb and coming later in the race it could have a meaningful impact. There are going to be lots of very tired domestiques by this point, especially if the riders are going hard.
The Col des Croix is next up and ensures that these riders will see barely a moment of flat road, before the short and steep Col des Chevreres, 3.5km at 9.5% and with steeper ramps. This one will sting. Will’s preview (read it again, folks) reminds us that “While [this climb is] officially only 3.5 kilometres long, they’ll be going uphill for almost 7 kilometres beforehand.” So that’ll be nice for them. There are bonifications at the top of this climb which might just make a difference to the racing, though to be honest I think most riders will be working too hard and thinking too much about the finish to care. Whilst I’m reminding you of how useful it is to tap into Will’s col-knowledge, he climbed a lot of these peaks back in 2014.
I don’t know about the riders, but I’m finding this exhausting. Let’s stop for a minute and let Amy fix us a drink. Fortunately, we’re taking a pause in the Vosges, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I dearly love a wooded hillside, and Alsace provides plenty. Also, damn fine booze…
Amy BC’s wine of the day
More bubbles please.
Leon Boesch Soixante Douze Brut NV from Copakewineworks
From an importer: Domaine Leon Boesch is located in the commune of Westhalten, in the heart of the Ballons des Vosges nature reserve. 11 generations of winemakers have upheld the tradition of producing fine Alsace wines, and today Gerard and Matthew (Father and Son) continue to create fantastic award winning wines. The door of woven straw that adorns the wine labels is there to remind them of their roots in the Noble Valley.
The vineyards cover 14.5 hectares of which 2.7 are in the Grand Cru Zinnkoepflé, 1.6 in the Clos Zwingel and 4 in Breitenberg. With all the names and major Alsatian wines covered (Riesling, Muscat, Pinot, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer and Riesling).
The finale, and picking a winner
We left the climbers at the foot of lBdBF, with 7.1km of climbing in front of… wait, what? Yes, this climb is longer than it used to be. Harder, too. Since we last watched riders suffering on this climb they’ve added a final kilometre at 9.5%, with ramps up to 24%. Assassins!
Does that change make a marked difference? Well, no, probably not. The climb was long enough and steep enough to give significant separation anyway. Riders who are suffering at the old finish will probably lose a little more time, but I think the same sort of riders will relish this finish, and I think the tactics will be the same – wait as long as possible and kick as hard as you can, essentially.
In sum, then, this will be a mighty tough day in the saddle, with lots of climbing and very few points of recovery, and with a savage pair of finishing climbs.
The first thing to say is that there will almost certainly be a break up the road. There always is, and the lure of all these mountain points make it inevitable that it’ll be a good one. The early sprintermediate means that the field might be held together until the first slopes of Markstein, but I’d expect someone to burst clear soon after that. Once we know who is in the break we’ll have a fair idea of which riders will be fighting for polka dots for the next few weeks.
I’d also expect that break to be brought back with some ease, and possibly earlier than typically. The tight roads and steep climbs mean that positioning will be key and I think the peloton will be working hard. A catch on the Col des Croix or the upslope approaching Chevreres seems likeliest to me. This stage will also be a good test of team strength, with leaders trying not to work until they have to and a good deal of reliance on domestiques. Deceuninck’s grasp on yellow notwithstanding, expect Ineos to be leading the field and looking to control pace, with the likes of Astana and Movistar lurking nearby. These guys are pros and don’t bonk often, but there aren’t many obvious places to eat, so good off-bike support will be worth plenty.
There’s a risk on this stage of the “Fleche effect” where the final climb is so hard that nobody really has the stomach to go early. I think there’s a decent chance that we see nothing more than phony wars up the Chevreres. A secondary GC threat like a Barguil might attack, but look for the bigs to be led up the penultimate climb by Ineos (Wout Poels, perhaps) with the riders who aren’t quite right dropping off the back. Based on stage four, this will be a painful climb for Simon Yates and for Ilnur Zakarin.
Towards the top of the Planche it’ll be every man for himself, however, and this is why I don’t really mind ASO overusing this climb – it is a good test of pure climbing ability, long enough to be significant but short and steep enough to not be a train-fest. We’ll certainly see a huge gap to the grupetto, and I think we’ll see tens of seconds (not minutes, probably) between the race favourites.
Dan Martin almost won here in 2017 and will be hoping to improve on that, whilst this sort of climb has suited Adam Yates in the past, and he needs to make up time. Romain Bardet and Nairo Quintana will enjoy the pure challenge of this whilst in happier times Richie Porte would have made the shortlist. Basically anyone we listed as a potential overall winner has to be thought about here.
The Ineos dynamics will be interesting to watch and I think this test is better suited to Egan Bernal, who also looks to be in better form early in the Tour than Geraint Thomas. I wouldn’t expect a big gap but I would expect Bernal to put a few more seconds into his frenemy. He certainly has it in him to win it and I wouldn’t be shocked, but I think he will delay his effort to ensure he doesn’t blow out (much as Froome did in 2017).
Finding a winner isn’t easy. I’ll give this to Yates, with Bernal finishing second and moving closer to the yellow jersey with, why not, Rigoberto Uran in third.
Green isn’t going anywhere, though ASO have done Viviani a solid by putting the spintermediate at 29km. It is uphill, but he might be in the frame. Much later in the race and he might not be in the right department. The other three? All very much up for grabs.
Wout van Aert has proved he can do just about anything and I’m reluctant to entirely rule him out. Still, he’s only got 26 seconds on Bernal (and 32 on Mas) so I’m fairly sure he’ll hand this over. He might even be passed by Gaudu and drop from the virtual podium. If this was the 2017 route I’d feel differently but I just don’t think WvA has the climbing chops for this course.
My grasp on the detail of the King of the Mountains scoring is sketchy at best, but I believe that a rider cresting all six peaks first and then winning the stage would pick up 54 points. On that basis, mathematically anyone could grab the lead. I’ve already said that I think the stage win will go to a GC favourite, but there are 27 points available should someone stay clear over the two early cat ones and the peaks in between. We’ll see riders fighting for those points and I’d expect Lotto Soudal to be in the break, if not with Wellens then with a spoiler. Given the points Tim Wellens brings into the day, he should be able to hang onto dots, but he’ll have company towards the top of the leaderboard after the shouting’s done.
Finally, the yellow jersey. Just how good is Julian Alaphilippe as a pure climber? He won’t be in the breaks, and he’ll be watched on the last couple of climbs. Can he cling on? My guess is that he can. He’s a very good climber and he recovers quickly, so if he can stay with the front group to the foot of lBdBF he’ll be able to stay close enough to cling on. He’s got twenty-five seconds on Kruijswick and Bennett (who I think are unlikely to grab bonis) and forty seconds on Bernal (who might well). Can he do the final climb within thirty seconds of the winner? Yeah, I think so. Of course, if he can’t stay with the group on the Chevreres, he could easily fall from the top ten. Given the likely police work on the front from Ineos, I think he’ll be okay.