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Le Tour: Is Sunday’s the Tour’s hardest stage?

GEX, France (VN) — There are only six “hors-categorie” climbs in this year’s Tour de France, and three of them are packed into Sunday’s ninth stage.

The fight for the yellow jersey has been wound up tight during the first week of the 2017 Tour. Many expect to see some GC hopes unravel for good during the seven-climb, 181.5km stage looming tomorrow.

“I think after a day like today, tomorrow is going to be super-hard. I think we could see the GC blown to pieces,” said reigning three-time race winner Chris Froome (Team Sky). “I expect the general classification to get blown apart tomorrow.”

“I think after a day like today, tomorrow is going to be super-hard. I think we could see the GC blown to pieces”
– Chris Froome

Why is everyone bracing for Sunday? Mont du Chat. The day’s finale climb averages 10 percent for nearly 10km up the climb. That consistent steepness puts alongside such climbs as Lagos de Covadonga featured in the Vuelta a España.

Rather than finish at the top, the stage plunges down to the shores of Lac du Bourget, before ending in Chambéry. There are about 13km on the flats ahead of the finish, but Froome says all the damage will be made on the uphill side.

“It’s fast, tricky descent. It’s more about the climb,” Froome said. “It’s the fourth big climb of the day, it’s at 10km at 10 percent. I think it’s going to blow the general classification to bits”

How hard is Sunday’s stage? Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) said it’s the most difficult in this year’s Tour de France.

“I believe Sunday is the hardest stage of the Tour,” Contador said. “It’s a stage that is completely different, a lot of long hours climbing, with steep grades, more resistance.”

Sunday’s stage isn’t one the Tour’s only three summit finales, but it could prove king-maker in this Tour.

Froome is first in line to solidify his position at the top of the leaderboard. The three-time champion shrugged off a nervous moment Saturday when he skidded off-course when teammate Geraint Thomas crashed. Otherwise, Team Sky looked to be firmly in control of what could have been a highly unpredictable stage.

On Saturday, Sky confirmed it’s up to the job of protecting yellow. Michal Kwiatkowski paced the front to control a frenetic race before others stepped up on the final climb. “Fortress Froome” looks ready to block Sunday. None of Sky’s major GC threats could lift a finger.

On Sunday, Froome’s rivals will have to take it to him if they hope to stop Sky from winning its fourth yellow jersey inside five years.

“You are going to have to [be at best],” said BMC’s Richie Porte, fifth at 39 seconds back. “Such a hard day, I think everybody had a solid day today, so there will be some tired legs out there.”

The cumulative kilometers of one week of racing, packed with long stages and intense heat, backed up by the demands of Saturday’s stage means that Sunday should see some major splintering among the GC field.

Eleven riders will start Sunday within 61 seconds of Froome. That number could be halved or more.

Making things even tougher are the two previous mountains. Both are “beyond-category” climbs — Col de la Biche and Grand Colombier — and both also feature sustained grades at 10 percent. In total, there are more than 4,500m of climbing on the stage.

“It’s really a monster of a stage,” said best young rider Simon Yates (Orica-Scott). “There are going to be some big changes on GC. It’s right up there with the hardest stages of the Tour.”

Wednesday’s punchy finale provided a taste of what’s to come. Saturday was the prelude. Sunday will be a full-on, GC throw-down.

If Froome can solidify his grip on yellow, he would be well on his way of winning a fourth yellow jersey. If he stutters, we could have a real race on our hands.

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