Our journey towards the Pyrenees and the brutal second half of this race continues. This is another “transport” stage but it could not be anymore different from stage 7 . Where that was flat, this is unrelentingly hilly, where the break was doomed from the start this is almost certain to be won from the breakaway, where there was a day for GC riders to rest and recouperate this offers nothing but hard work and the need to stay vigilant on tricky roads. Beautiful views may be the only common denominator.
We have a fair bit of medium stages to get through before the GC race truly kicks off again on Thursday. That is not to say that the stages are uninspiring in any way. First of all the weekend offers this and another Massif Central stages and both me and Andrew picked this one as our dark horse entertainment stage in our course preview draft and it might as well be stage 9, Bastille Day, that turns out to be the nugget. The ASO know their stuff and they wouldn’t have made this the weekend menu if they didn’t have high hopes for the entertainment value, the 2017 pass through the area made for great racing.
So what are we actually looking at?
That’s a ton of climbing spread out over practically the whole stage in small portions, about 3800m in total. Now we often talk about ambush stages and in theory this should be one of them but we probably saw at La Planche des Belles Filles that there isn’t really any team in this race looking to stage any kinds of ambush. They all know that the stages from the Pyrenees on are so grueling that whatever small gains here will be of little consequence. Now should one of the major favorites show himself to have a bad day here there is every chance to pile on some pressure drive that advantage home but the chances of that happening are pretty slim.
What we will probably see for the first time this year is a long protracted fight for who can get in that early break and perhaps crucially, who will be allowed to go. Trek now hold yellow with Ciccone and he probably has eyes on a Polka challenge as well. For yellow there is really only one major threat and that is Alaphilippe and who knows what he will do on a stage like this? In yellow he would have not even tried anything but now Ciccone has that cross to bear. If Ciccone does have polka ideas, and Trek are not Porte-focused enough to stop them from supporting them, they should probably keep a few key contenders from going out chasing points now that Ciccone himself can’t go for them. This could all lead to some tricky negotiating before we see the right group formation in the first hour and even if Trek want to control it, chances are the big rush to get away will be too much to handle for them.
These Massif Central stages have a very distinct feel to them. I dunno if this actually is the most rural area of France but it often feels like a place where time moves slower than in other places (not counting the roads of stage 7 where time moved slower than anywhere). The gnarly roadsurface and the unrelenting up and down make these stages feel harder than anything else in the Tour and the toughness always seems reflected in the stage winners. Even if it’s from a breakaway that is allowed to go you know they had to work brutally hard for it.
So who will actually win?
At this point there’s any number of qualified escape artists who could pull this off even if we don’t count the 16-17 of them from Lotto-Soudal who will surely be in the break. We can perhaps write off the French ones who may be keeping their powder dry for Bastille Day. The helpers on the big GC teams are probably out of the mix, no one is sending people up the road here like they will in the big mountains, but that still leaves a fair number of riders. A guy like Max Schachmann has probably earned the chance to do more than babysit the Bora captains for three weeks and could be a good shout here. Wout van Aert too is a guy who has soo much unfinished business and he’s not got too many other days he can expect freedom. And then there is Rui Costa who looked friskier than in a long time the other day, this would be an ideal kind of day for him and he has no commitments. Almost 100% we will find Michael Valgren on the attack here, no one has so much to make up for this season so if his legs are anywhere near where he needs them to be he will make this break. Nothing so far this season seems to indicate that he can pull off a win though but maybe here is where his luck turns?
Others I expect in the break but unsuccessfully are Simon Geschke, Søren Kragh and Ben King but in the end I’m going to contradict myself and pick a Frenchman for the win, namely Lilian Calmejane. We discussed his awkward position of being a guy caught between specialties the other day but this is what he is made for. A tough breakaway on a stage where brute force and smarts can overcome your lack of top climbing or superb finishing speed. Let’s say he escapes in a threeway finale with Costa and Valgren who both end up too clever for their own good.