Tour de France Stage 18 Preview

Thursday, 18 July - stage 18: Gap - Alpe-d'Huez, 172.5km

Stage 18 has been labelled as the most difficult, controversial and discussed stage in this year’s Tour. It begins in Gap, where Rui Costa won a stage on Tuesday, and finishes on the iconic Alpe d’Huez. It is not a long stage at 172km, yet by the time the riders arrive at the finish, they would have climbed the Alpe twice and 6 categorised climbs, 2 of them classified as HC. Another key factor in the stage is the treacherous descent after the 1999m Col de Sarenne. However, there is a strong possibility that the stage will be shortened due to the dangerous descent. As I am writing this blog, there is apparently a risk of cancellation if it rains, and weather forecasts predict it will, but we probably won’t know until hours before the stage.

The peloton will roll out of Gap and onto the Col de Manse – the climb where Contador repeatedly attacked Sky on Tuesday – after just a few kilometres. By the time they reach the top, 13km into the stage, the day’s breakaway should be established. The descent is famous for when Joseba Beloki, second at that point, crashed in 2003 and Armstrong had to divert across a field to avoid calamity. The Tour then crosses the scenic Valbonnais to tackle the easier side of the Col d’Ornon, before making its way onto the first ascent of the Alpe d’Huez. If the Peleton do race down the Col de Sarenne, which they might not, they will then have to cycle up the harder of the two Alpe d’Huez ascents. With 21 hairpin bends, and 13.8km at an average of 8.1% gradient, this is certainly not your average stroll in the park.

The Many Controversies:

This stage has numerous controversies. Seven months after the Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, unveiled the route at the Tour presentation, Matthieu Stelvio, a local man determined to stop the descent of the Sarenne from being used, collected over 10,000 signatures in an online petition. His reason is different; chemicals which will leak into the soil from the new tarmac and the marmots living on the slopes will suffer is his main concerns. The manager of FDJ, Marc Madiot, is quoted as saying “it is pretty dangerous,” and “it worries me.” Alberto Contador and Tony Martin both have criticised the race organisers for including such a dangerous descent in the Tour. Martin commented: “If someone falls, they skid 30 metres...” Consider the fact that the speed limit is 20kph in a motor vehicle and they will be riding at up to 60kph. Richie Porte said that Contador and Froome made a pact before the Tour that they’d take it easy down the Sarenne, but he doubts that in the heat of the moment the deal will be kept. In my opinion the race organisers should cancel the first ascent of Alpe d’Huez, thereby avoiding the descent, and reroute the stage so that there will still be a summit finish on the other side.

Watch the descent of the Col de Sarenne:

The History:

The summit of Alpe d’Huez is the mountain in which the Tour has finished most on. Today will be the 27th time a Tour stage has finished on this historical peak. The most recent summit finish was in 2011 where Pierre Rolland out-climbed Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez. It was first included in the race in 1952 and has been a stage finish regularly since 1976. That first Alpe d'Huez stage was won by Fausto Coppi. Coppi attacked 6 kilometres from the summit to rid himself of the French rider, Jean Robic. He turned the Alpe into an instant legend because this was the year that motorcycle television crews first came to the Tour. It was also the Tour's first mountain-top finish. Each of the 21 hairpin bends are named after the winners of stages on the Alpe.
The Favourites:

Obviously, after winning his third stage on Wednesday, Chris Froome once again enters this stage as the favourite. He has won both summit finishes so far this Tour, and what’s to stop him becoming the only Britain ever, besides Mark Cavendish, to win 4 or more stages in one Tour? His climbing and form is superior to his other rivals and at the moment he is well on course to becoming the 2nd consecutive Britain to win the Tour. Nairo Quintana is the 2nd best climber in this Tour at the moment. He is the only rider so far to be able to stay remotely with Froome on the climbs, coming second by 29 seconds on the stage to Mont Ventoux. In my mind he is the only rider competent enough to beat Froome today and I will not be surprised if he is on the final podium in Paris. Contador comes in as my 3rd choice for today’s stage. His climbing has been very weak in comparison to his 2011(drug fuelled) Giro D’Italia victory and I feel that he will once again be limiting his losses. All he can try to do is attempt to hold off Quintana for the next 3 stages. Of those fighting for the 3rd podium place Roman Kreuziger and Bauke Mollema are clearly less competent than Joaquim Rodriguez. Rodriguez first found proper form on Mont Ventoux where he finished 4th and carried it over to the time trial where he finished 3rd. He is only an outside possibility for today’s stage, but don’t underrate him! The only other scenario I can see being played out is the breakaway surviving this harsh stage: Unlikely, but possible.
The Weather:

The weather is the main cause for concern in today’s stage. If it rains then the course may be changed:

General Classification:

The new top 10 overall is:
1. Froome (GBR) SKY
2. Contador (ESP) TST at 4'34"
3. Kreuziger (CZE) TST at 4'51"
4. Mollema (NED) BEL at 6'23"
5. Quintana (COL) MOV at 6'58"
6. Rodriguez (ESP) KAT at 7'21"

TV Coverage:

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