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Tour Stage 18 Preview: The Alpine Trilogy, Part 1

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Embrun to Vaillore (by way of the Vars, Izoard and Galibier) (208 km)

Tim de Waele/Getty Images

So it begins. The decisive three days in the Alps. And the first part is going to be a real leg-sapper. Over 200 kilometers and climbing three mountain passes, with each topping off at over 2,000 meters. While the next two stages have summit finishes, there’s a long descent from the summit of the Galibier on this stage.

I think the ASO deserves some credit for how they sequenced these final stages, with the hardest and longest stage coming first, followed by two shorter stages of 127 and 130 kilometers. The first stage will both serve to wear out the GC contenders and allow any riders further down the classification an opportunity for a longer-range attack. In the Pyrenees, no teams, including the race-suffocating-artists-formally-known-as-Sky, were able to control the action. Let’s see if that trend holds for the Alps.

The Parcours

As always, I defer to the expertise of Will as to the difficulty of the climbs that await for the riders on Stage 18. Will rates the Col d’Izoard as the 4th hardest climb of the race, with the Col du Galibier being the 6th hardest and the Col de Vars the 10th hardest.

The unique aspect of this stage is that all three climbs have summits at over 2,000 meters, with the climbs getting progressively higher throughout the stage, topping out at 2,642 meters (8,667 feet) on the Galibier. Thus, the riders will be getting higher than Floyd Landis on a typical Thursday afternoon.

As Will notes in his preview, the descent off the Galibier is not very technical. It’s long, though, and only really flattens out in the last kilometer with a slight uphill drag to the line.

Weather

It’s going to be hot, but perhaps not as hot. In Embrun, at the start, the temperature is predicted to be in the low 90s. At the finish in Vailloire, it will be a little cooler as it’s at a higher altitude of 1,400 meters. However, more important than the heat, it looks like there will be afternoon thunderstorms, predicted to begin right about the time that the riders will be on the Galibier.

Let’s see if Amy has any suggestions for riders trying to escape the heat or for French fans who are feverish with excitement.

Amy’s Wine of the Day

Stage 18: I admit it, I’m cheating here. But this is just fun.

The wine: Cocchi Barolo Chinato

From the producer: Born in Piedmont in the last century, it soon spread thanks to its taste, well balanced between bitter and sweet, and especially for the leading effect on the market of its name “Barolo”, that immediately positioned it among the noblest products compared to various other types of alcoholic drinks based on cinchona. In Italy its consumption was encouraged by the fame it gained as therapeutic wine. A traditional remedy in Piedmont to cure many small sicknesses, especially in case of cooling. Drunk as a vin brulé, hot and invigorating, its antipyretic and digestive capacities were widely recognized. Serving it to the guests became a typical tradition of the farmers’ hospitality. Over time, the use of this aromatized wine changed and today, in the general wake to recover traditions and naturality, it’s been rediscovered with new and interesting consumption styles.

Jersey Watch

While Sagan and Bernal are firmly ensconced in green and white respectively, the polka dots and yellow are up for grabs. Before we turn our attention to the GC competition, let’s take a look at the mountain classification. Currently, Tim Wellens is in the lead with 64 points over Thibaut Pinot’s 50 and Thomas De Gendt’s 37. Simon Yates, Giulio Ciccone, and Romain Bardet all lurk ominously further down the rankings, with each having fallen out of GC contention and possibly refocusing their goals.

Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

As a reminder, here are how the points are dolled out for the mountains:

  • HC climb: 20, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2
  • 1st category climb: 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 1
  • 2nd category climb: 5, 3, 2, 1
  • 3rd category climb: 2, 1
  • 4th category climb: 1

And, most importantly, points are doubled on all HC climbs that are over 2,000 meters in altitude.

That means that on this stage, with two HC climbs over 2,000 meters, a rider that gets over all of the climbs first can collect 102 points. If you want to win the polka dots, you better get in the break on this stage. Thus, expect a huge fight to get into the breakaway.

Wellens may be able to limit his losses if he gets into the break but is unlikely to be the best climber. There’s a good chance he loses the jersey. The big question will be whether the best grimpeur will also be the best GC rider, with Pinot already amassing a number of points and two summit finishes on tap in the subsequent Alpine stages.

As for the yellow jersey, it still hangs tenuously on Julian Alaphilippe’s shoulders, but this should be the day when he finally is forced to relinquish it to the, you know, actual GC riders. If he defies all odds and holds onto it, don’t bet against him wearing it all the way to Paris.

For the time being, let’s remove Alaphilippe from the potential yellow jersey winners. Going into Stage 18, we then have the following standings:

  1. Geraint Thomas - 0:00
  2. Steven Kruijswijk - 0:12
  3. Thibaut Pinot - 0:15
  4. Egan Bernal - 0:27
  5. Emanuel Buchmann - 0:39
  6. Mikel Landa - 3:19
  7. Alejandro Valverde - 3:25
  8. Rigoberto Uran - 3:58

That’s the top 3 riders all within 15 seconds of each other, the top 5 riders all within 39 seconds of each other, and the top 8 riders all within 4 minutes of each other. While Valverde and Uran are both very long shots and Landa a wild card, the virtual top 5 riders are more the less starting off their Alpine adventure with clean slates. If you want the PdC’s thoughts on who’s going to come out ahead (and improper animal husbandry techniques), you can find those here.

Who Wins?

Based upon this stage’s importance to the mountain jersey classification, I think we get a two-race-in-one scenario with a big break contesting for the win and a separate fight for GC behind. Of course, that’s based upon how the Tour usually goes, and the unexpected should be expected this year. The presumptive GC favorites still have to crack Alaphilippe, which might necessitate a higher pace earlier in the stage, and Mikel “Mangalica” Landa is looking shifty in 6th place and just itching for a long range attack. Still, I’ll stick with the conservative guess and go with a break taking the stage. Look for riders like Thomas De Gendt, Simon Yates, Romain Bardet, Giulio Ciccone, Vincenzo Nibali, Michael Woods, and any of the remaining Astani to try for the break. If that happens, I’ll go with Simon Yates getting a third stage victory.

As for the GC battle, I can’t look past Mr. Born-at-9000-Feet- Egan Bernal. If we said at the beginning of the race that by the time that we got to the high altitude mountains, Bernal would only be seconds behind the other GC contenders, there would be no doubt that everyone would make him the prohibitive favorite. My guess is that he finally finds some separation from the other contenders here.