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Tour Stage 15 Preview: Albi waiting for you

Limoux - Foix-Prat d’Albis

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In my head, decisive Grand Tour stages happen at the weekend. I should know by now that this isn’t true, but I expect to see the biggest days on the days when the sport can expect the most eyeballs. It isn’t totally clear to me why this isn’t true, but I suspect some combination of (a) mountains, and mountain stages, falling in groups, (b) the riders making the race and not necessarily picking the ratings-friendly days to attack and (c) the organisers of cycling events being monumentally idiotic. This is all by way of preamble to my assessment of tomorrow’s stage: it won’t bring the same level of GC action as we saw on Saturday,* but it is likely to be a mighty entertaining day.

In fact, the recipe is fairly similar to last Sunday’s stage. That was a hilly 170km romp over three categorised climbs that was eventually won by a strong rider from a good break. Tomorrow’s is a very hilly 185km romp over four categorised climbs that will eventually be won by… well, let’s come back to that. First, a pause for some wine, and them we’ll deal with that dangling asterisk that I know is bothering you all.

Amy’s wine of the day

Mas Jefferies Bories Jus de Caillou 2016

Alice Feiring is a friend and wine writer. Note the bicycle comment! Let’s see what she has to say about this one:

Joe Jefferies says that the only things that interest him are bicycles and making wine. The latter shows in every bottle of his I’ve had. (The bicycles, that’s another story.) Expect wine made naturally and carefully. This is a wine that is so clean it might flip out those who equate natural with funk. The three varieties are vinified separately; carbo for all. It’s five weeks for the carignan (that’s quite a bit) and three each for the cinsault and the grenache. It’s a complex beaut that has sun, structure, licorice, spice and pepper as well as plenty of tannin. There’s also a salinity Joe claims comes because his vines are situated atop old basalt lava flows. True? What do you think?

* “As we saw on Saturday.” Not me, guv.

Saturday’s stage was a good one on paper. In fact, when I came to “draft” the second-best stage of the race, I picked yesterday’s race, and had this to say about it:

Picking second, I get to take my number one choice (thanks, Jens!) with stage 14. I admit it, I’m a sucker for a trend and I lurve me a short mountain stage. 117km, three categorised climbs, and a finish atop the Tourmalet. Yes, it is a big beast of the Tour that we all know well, but it has a few things all MTF finishes should have - altitude (2,115m), a sting in the tail (sections at 10% plus towards the finish) and thousands of lunatic Basque fans all over the road. You can overthink early picks, but I am looking forward to this one the most.

Cometh the stage, and where was I? I was in my little yard, tongs in hand, grilling food and eating with friends. It was a delight. I was sorry to miss the stage, but sanguine. I was pretty sure I would be able to watch the highlights and figure out what had happened. Not yet. I haven’t been back and seen the end of the race but I am staggered that Alaphilippe held on. So, let’s use this piece for tomorrow’s preview to also look back on a stage where France picked up the stage win and also moved, perhaps, closer to a home winner than they’ve moved in years. Plenty left to unpick, and once I’ve seen the race, I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts. Let me know yours below.

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Who wins?

As I say, Sunday looks like it’ll be pure entertainment.

Going into a little more detail, these are four tough climbs without any of them reaching the scale of unmanageable. It looks a certain day for the break. Will’s ever-essential guide is particularly good for some of these less visited peaks, and I see that his application of climbbybike rankings puts the closing Prat d’Albis as the 14th hardest climb in the race, and one spot ahead of la Planche des Belles Filles. Now, we all understand the weakness of this measure as overplaying length versus steepness, but it’d be easy to miss the trickiness of this finishing climb.

Of equal importance, perhaps, is the penultimate Mur de Peguere. Even my French allows me to translate Mur, and I like what I see. There’s ramps of up to 15% on this climb and it will be an absolute brute.

So, among the GC group, we’ll see the usual separation of the grupetto fairly early, and I think plenty of domestiques will be chucked out early in a day featuring around 4,700m of total climbing. The steep slopes of the Peguere and the lack of recovery means that the final climb should be contested by a smallish group. I wouldn’t get too excited about major gaps given that it isn’t a particularly long climb, nor a particularly steep one, but there is likely to be some fighting.

With a day off coming on Monday, there’s a chance to empty the tank a little and there are plenty of riders motivated either to recover losses from Saturday or to win time back. I’d expect to see riders coming home in pairs and trios, but without significant gaps between them, and I’d expect any changes in classification to be trivial rather than dramatic.

I also think there will be a break up the road, and I suspect it will win the stage. I compared it to the stage 9 run from last Sunday, but the biggest difference is the finish at the top of the climb. Daryl Impey won last week as the best sprinter in the break, and tomorrow’s stage will go to the best climber in the break. A more useful comparison is perhaps to last year’s stage 14, won by Omar Fraile ahead of some lad called Alaphilippe. Wonder what happened to him? Anyway, that day 28 riders came in spread over seven minutes, with the leaders of the peloton 18 minutes back, and around a minute between the bigs. That’s the sort of scenario I envision tomorrow.

Who’ll be in the group? Well, the usual suspects. Guys with decent form but no meaningful chance in GC, representatives of the hungrier teams, stage hunters, and those looking for King of the Mountains points. Thomas de Gendt will be there. Giulio Ciccone, too. I wouldn’t rule out Omar Fraile, and maybe Tony Gallopin. You know the sort of rider.

The worst thing about the predictions game for a stage like this is that you really have to give two winners. I think Geraint Thomas will lead the GC group home, and, what the hell, Jan Tratnik to win from the break.

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Jersey Watch

Nothing, I suspect, to see here. Jul-Al is defending a two-minute cushion which ought to be more than sufficient, whilst Tim Wellens will presumably hoover up a few more early points to add to his buffer in the King of the Mountains jersey. You won’t see Peter Sagan out of green this year and Enric Mas is done with contending for Egan Bernal’s white. Things may get interesting again for dots and yellow, but not just yet.