On this, the Sunday of the Tour, I’ve been taking stock of the race up until now. The short answer is that this is one of my favorite editions of the Tour in years, probably since the 1990s. I like the Tour best when the race seems wide open, when the obvious drama of the event is how its outcome can’t be guessed by either experts or its newest followers.
To be sure, I think the eventual winner will have the last name of either Evans or Schleck, but that’s three possible outcomes and a bad day by any of them could open the door to Basso, Contador or—gasp—Sanchez or even—double gasp—Voeckler! Jens Voigt observed that Voeckler is riding on credit; few would argue that he hasn’t already overdrawn his account. But while we’ve been waiting for him to fold as any interloper is supposed to do according to the race’s script, he has shown more than mere tenacity. His surges to bring back the likes of Basso and Schleck seemed to irritate Schleck the younger, judging from his elbow waves.
What I saw in Voeckler was a man who will not go quietly, won’t concede that he’s a pretender to the throne. I can’t recall seeing a rider more out of his element ride with greater courage than when Voeckler launched that massive acceleration to go after Basso.
What has surprised me is how many journalists, bloggers and friends have complained of uninteresting and negative racing. Perhaps I was watching a different race. What I saw on stage 14 looked like the sixth round of a ten-round title fight. Each of those attacks would have crumpled mortal riders. Watching for who might attack next and when the attack did come watching for who was slow to respond kept me leaning into the TV and breathless.
We have four mountain stages left. The first two end with descents (yay, I like descents), while the final two end atop hors categorie climbs. Tomorrow’s stage into Gap is one where a breakaway with no-name riders might, finally, work. We’re bound to see some fireworks on the climb to Sestrieres, but it’s unlikely to result in any significant shakeup to the GC. Would could be interesting, though, is the steep descent off of the Cote de Pramartino with less than a half kilometer of flat to the finish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voeckler punched it on the descent.
Some race fans won’t like it, but the big moves that decide the race will happen on the Galibier on their way to Serre Chevalier. The riders can’t afford to wait for l’Alpe d’Huez to try to blow the race apart. The Col Agnel is, based on my experience, steep enough that many domestiques will be rendered useless long before the race reaches the foot of the Col d’Izoard.
A word on stage 19: It’s as classic a mountain stage as can be devised. Begin the day with a downhill warmup to the foot of the Col du Telegraphe. After 12km of climbing, give them a brief (4km) descent to recover before throwing them at one of the most feared climbs in cycling, the 18km up to the Col du Galibier. Don’t expect a break including any favorites to go there, though. The descent from the top of the Galibier to the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez is nearly 50km and except for the upper portion of the Galibier, it’s not a technical descent; a group can haul ass (that’s a technical term) for le Bourg d’Oisans.
We can forgive the riders if they seem a bit conservative, even tentative. While the stage 14 attacks can’t be called timid, the responses in most cases were an only-as-much-as-necessary effort to keep the opposition in check. With the race this tight, one wrong move could dock you six spots on GC.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
By now, you’ve probably seen the route of the 2011 Tour de France. It is, if nothing else, a substantial departure from the last 10 or so Tours. It would be easy to fault this edition for a lack of time trialing kilometers. After all, there’s no prologue, only one individual time trial and the team time trial is so short a rider could crash on the start ramp, ride alone for the entirety of the course and still finish inside the time limit. To do so, would be to misunderstand the race.
The lack of time trial kilometers really just underscores the central feature of the 2011 race: This is a race for the climbers, pure and simple. The course can’t ensure it’s winner, but it does much to select the most fit athlete.
So what makes this a climber’s tour? With six mountain stages, the 2011 Tour is in keeping with the last 10 Tours. What is different, however is that this edition has four mountain-top finishes. You have to go back to 2002 to find an edition that had more than three mountain finishes. In that year, won as you may recall by Lance Armstrong, five out of six mountain stages finished at the top of a significant (Cat. 1 or hors categorie) climb.
The Pyrenees come first in 2011. The three stages begin with a 209km assault on Luz Ardiden, the first mountain finish of the race. The stage from Pau to Lourdes really only has one challenge, ascending the Col d’Aubisque followed by the bump of the Col du Soulor. It’s okay, though. The next day makes up for it.
The 168km stage from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille seems short, but takes in five climbs culminating in the climb that is likely to reflect the Tour’s final victor. History holds that the wearer of the yellow jersey atop Plateau de Beille wins in Paris.
The difficulties don’t end there. The five stages leading to the final stage into Paris leave the sprinters no scraps. Following the second rest day on July 18, the riders face a medium mountain stage, a high mountain stage, then the stage from Pinerolo to Serre-Chevalier—the Col du Galibier. To get there they have to climb the 2744-meter-high Col Agnel, which is very steep in its final kilometers, followed by the the 2306-meter Col d’Izoard and finishing with the first-ever finish atop the 2645-meter Col du Galibier. This 189km stage could see some talented riders fold.
And even if all the favorites come through the mountain-top finish atop the Galibier, the next-day’s stage will present a challenge of a different sort. The final mountain stage of the 2011 Tour isn’t the typical stage where that begins with a big climb before heading into flatter country. No, riders tackle the north side of the Galibier, climbing the Col du Telegraphe and then ascending Galibier before descending to the town of le Bourg d’Oisans and scaling l’Alpe d’Huez.
The typical Alpine stage runs from 150-200kms (roughly 90 to 125 miles). However, this stage is only 109km long; that’s less than 70 miles. Racing will hopefully prove to be furious.
The very next day is the Tour’s final time trial. At 41km, it’s short, reinforcing just how important the climbing is to the race, but for racers tired from four consecutive days in the mountains, this could be another chance for fatigue to crush someone’s aspirations (and season).
After the uninteresting course in 2009 and a nearly as uninspired 2010 race where the most interesting mountain stage didn’t end at the top of the mountain, 2011 holds the promise of a truly epic race.
The stages: (mountain stages in bold, * mountain-top finish)
July 2, stage 1: Passage du Gois-Mont des Alouettes, 191km
July 3, stage 2: Les Essarts-Les Essarts, TTT, 23km
July 4, stage 3: Olonne-sur-Mer-Redon, 198km
July 5, stage 4: Lorient-Mûr-de-Bretagne, 172km
July 6, stage 5: Carhaix-Cap Fréhel, 158km
July 7, stage 6: Dinan-Lisieux, 226km
July 8, stage 7: Le Mans-Châteauroux, 215km
July 9, stage 8: Aigurande-Super Besse Sancy, 190km
July 10, stage 9: Issoire-St-Flour, 208km
July 11, rest day
July 12, stage 10: Aurillac-Carmaux, 161km
July 13, stage 11: Blaye-les-Mines-Lavaur, 168km
July 14, stage 12: Cugnaux-Luz Ardiden, 209km*
July 15, stage 13: Pau-Lourdes, 156km
July 16, stage 14: Saint-Gaudens-Plateau de Beille, 168km*
July 17, stage 15: Limous-Montpellier, 187km
July 18, rest day
July 19, stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux-Gap, 163km
July 20, stage 17: Gap-Pinerolo, 179km
July 21, stage 18: Pinerolo-Galibier/Serre-Chevalier, 189km*
July 22, stage 19: Modane-Alpe d’Huez, 109km*
July 23, stage 20: Grenoble-Grenoble, ITT, 41km
July 24, stage 21: Créteil-Paris/Champs-Elysées, 160km
Ten years ago this past June I entered the Ubaye Valley with a group of friends on a tour of Provence and the Maritime Alps. We dropped out of the mountains to the west and into a tiny town called Barcelonette. Though the town was founded in the 13th century, it features an unusual cultural quirk—the inhabitants have a fondness for Mexico.
It started with a pair of brothers who moved from the nearby town of Jausiers to Mexico in the 1800s where they proceeded to make a fortune. Back home, news of their success spread and others emigrated and began businesses. Unfortunately, not everyone was so successful and many returned to France.
When they returned home to Barcelonette they brought a taste of their (briefly) adopted home with them. Mexican flavors were blended into dishes and Mexican influences infiltrated the architecture and art.
Barcelonette sports another unusual feature: The valley it sits in is surrounded by a number of high cols. A cursory list would include the Col d’Allos, the Col de la Cayolle, the Col de la Bonette, the Col de Vars as well as Pra Loup.
A spur road off of the Col de la Bonette, called the Cime de la Bonette, loops out at the pass, rising to 2860 meters (9383 feet), making it the highest paved through-road (not dead end) in Europe, according to Michelin and local signage. As claims go, it’s true enough, but it’s a weak achievement, relatively speaking, as the cime is a road to nowhere. Still, climbing up the steep loop is well worth it as the views from the top are to spectacular what the Ferrari California is to sports cars.
When my group reached the Col de la Bonette in 2000, high walls of snow drove down the balmy air temperature, giving the breeze a walk-in freezer vibe. The pass itself had just been plowed through but the road to the cime was impassible. We really couldn’t even tell where the road went.
Today, I got to amend that ride and climb to the top of the Cime de la Bonette. The 24km climb averages a bit more than six percent, but when you reach the cime, the road kicks up to more than eight percent, making the final 400 meters surprisingly difficult.
By the time you reach the top you’ve been above the treeline for at least 7km, so views of the surrounding valleys are completely open.
The Cime de la Bonette is the high point of our tour and the third time we’ve ascended above 9000 feet. Our second occasion to climb past 9000 was just yesterday when we did a simple out and back climb to the top of the Col Agnel which rises to 2744 meters (9003 feet). It’s the highest international pass in the Alps, and the road leads to Cuneo, in Piedmont, Italy.
Both the Agnel and the Bonette were used in the 2008 Tour de France. Both were given the rank of hors categorie.
Knowing that we had two big days ahead of us, most of us chose simply to turn around after reaching the top. It was difficult to resist dropping down the other side. The views, even for the Alps, were stunning, but the descent was steep and we heard that the restaurants in the nearest town were booked solid with lunch reservations.
Our hotel was in the town of St. Veyran, half way up the climb from Chateau Queyras, making the climb roughly 10km, not the 20 it is from Chateau Queyras.
And while I have previously wished that we were sleeping at sea level, or something close to it, the fact that I didn’t have any nausea on yesterday or today’s climbs, and experienced a minimal loss in wattage on either the Col de Vars or the Cime de la Bonette today leads me to think that maybe I’m beginning to acclimate to the altitude.
I seem to be managing the fatigue to some degree. I’m not crushed by it, but it’s hard to ride even at a tempo pace on these incredibly long climbs. I’ve found myself thinking, “Okay, 12km to go; that’s the length of Latigo Canyon in Malibu. Okay, 8km to go; that’s the length of Piuma in Malibu.” The lengths of these climbs are just surreal.
The memory from today that lingers with me is of descending the Cime de la Bonette. The portion of the descent above the treeline offered extraordinary views of the road ahead and I could see whether or not cars were coming sometimes up to 500 meters ahead, which gave me the chance to take the whole of the road as I dropped down the shoulder of the mountain. Even below the treeline, the sightline was good and I only had to hit my brakes for the switchbacks.
The weather is, finally, spectacular.