Article by Todd Hofert
The final week of the Tour is more appropriately a five-day affair with a rest day and the largely ceremonial ride into Paris and a subsequent sprint finish.
Following the second rest day on Tuesday, the riders face a demanding day that again has a general uphill profile from start to finish. The 161km Stage 17 from Digne-les-Bains to Pra Loup features five categorized climbs, the longest and most difficult the Cat 1 Col d’Allos (2,250m 14 kilometre-long climb at 5.5%). The stage finishes atop the Pra Loup (1,620m 6.2 kilometre-long climb at 6.5%). The climb itself is not long enough or steep enough to prove decisive but the short stage coupled with a leader board looking forward to the battles that are sure to ensue over the following three days could provide an opportunity for a day long break to succeed yet again, something that has become rather commonplace this year.
Thursday, Friday, and Saturday will run the general classification through a gauntlet not suited for the faint of heart. If the GC is not already decided, Stages 18, 19 and 20 will fully define the podiums for Paris. Nairo Quintana and Tejay Van Garderen have the most to gain and to lose respectively. Quintana believes he is within striking distance of Froome on his preferred terrain of the Alps and Tejay will be looking to ward off Alejandro Valverde who is lurking a few seconds behind both eyes narrowly focused on grabbing that final podium spot. And Contador, Thomas and Gesink all theoretically within striking distance of the podium and certainly all interested in a top five at least.
Stage 18 on Thursday can be referred to as the queen stage of this Tour. It’s length and sheer volume of climbing earns it that distinction. The route of 186.5km from Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne will ascend 7 categorized climbs including the penultimate hors categorie climb of the Col du Glandon. The GC contenders may be looking to save some energy for the next two days that culminate with summit finishes. If the action doesn’t heat up on the ascent of the Glandon, the descent may also offer an opportunity. The narrow and technical down slopes of the Glandon would suit a fearless descender such as Alberto Contador or Vincenzo Nibali well as they search for some time on the leaders. In addition, there are plenty of mountain points to be had all packed into a relatively short distance. Mix in an opportunistic escapee and this stage has all the makings for some exciting racing.
Stage 19 is a monster of a stage. At a glance, it would appear to be just another alpine day at the Tour. Digging a little deeper we can see that there are more kilometers of climbing and more vertical elevation gain than any other stage of the Tour this year. The final 80km of the stage will be either up or down. There will be nowhere to hide and the best tactic of the day will be to be the strongest climber. Throw in the fact that the summit finish also boasts the longest ascent of the Tour and this should be an epic stage.
Le Aple d’Huez. What more needs to be said? Stage 20 is short at just 110km but what it lacks in length is more than made up for by reputation. Huge crowds will greet the riders as they make the famed left hand bend out of le Bourg-d’Oisans and onto the 21 switchbacks that make up the climb to Le Aple d’Huez. There is no doubt that pressure and attacks will come from every direction. A non-GC rider trying to etch his name on one of the plaques of stage winners that line the climb, Quintana making one last gasp effort to reel the Yellow Jersey back or a rider trying to improve their place in the GC. Tour after Tour this climb never disappoints.
And finally the roll into Paris. Again a short ride at 109km, the race, as usual, will only heat up once the riders hit the cobbles of Champs-Élysées. Expect a bunch sprint. Expect a fourth stage win for The Gorilla, although Degenkolb, Cavendish, Kristoff, Coquard and a few select others will all be there to have their say in the final result.