Tour de France 2020

Compact stage 17 expected to be toughest Pyrenean challenge

The Tour de France's shortest road stage in 30 years on Wednesday is expected to be the hardest of the final three mountain stages in the Pyrénées.

CARASSONNE, France (VN) — The Tour de France’s shortest road stage in 30 years on Wednesday is expected to be the hardest of the final three mountain stages in the Pyrénées.

After the rest day Monday, the 2018 Tour faces its final round of mountains with three days in the mountain chain separating France from Spain.

“Yeah, all the teams are worried about it,” said Nicolas Portal, sports director at Team Sky with race leader Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome sitting second.

“The short one is going to be a bit of an unknown. You start, it’s already 10% for six to seven kilometers, and then you turn right, and it’s the same gradient. For me, the last climb is harder than Alpe d’Huez.”

Other recent short stages have sparked fear and caused chaos. In the Tour’s 101-kilometer stage to Foix last year, cyclists broke free immediately and Alberto Contador launched a long-range attack at 65 kilometers remaining.

And in the 118.5-kilometre Formigal stage of the 2016 Vuelta a España, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana turned the race on its head. With the move, Quintana gained enough time that helped him eventually win the Vuelta.

Stage 17, Wednesday, covers only 65 kilometers, but 43 of those will be spent climbing. It’s the shortest road stage in years and potentially the most explosive.

The 1996 Tour featured a 46-kilometer stage, but that was only after the organizer cut the distance due to snow. You have to go back to 1985 to find a shorter planned day, when the riders raced a split day.

“You can’t miss anything that day,” said Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Patxi Vila. “If your breakfast was late, or your warm up was not good, or you are a little tired, you’ll suffer. It’s the most important stage of the Pyrenean ones. Such a big amount to climb in a short space, so there’s no room for mistakes.”

The stage travels through the Pyrenees, starting in Bagnères-de-Luchon, covering the Col de Peyresourde and the Val Louron-Azet before finishing up the Col du Portet.

“It will be the most decisive of the three, just like everyone expects,” said Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo).

“And of course, that last day of the three before the time trial. You have the race over Col d’Aubisque. It can be quite hard, and everyone’s legs will be tired. Those two stages will set the GC.”

“The short stage is intense and it’s final is brutal,” said Team Sunweb sports director Luke Roberts.

“Off the back off a mountain stage the day before and into the third week of a grand tour, I suspect there will be some cracks opening up.”

Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin sits third overall. The Dutchman could benefit if assaults are launched on Team Sky.

After the rest day, the Tour restarts with the first mountain day in the Pyrénées. Stage 16 travels over the Col du Portillon and takes a fast descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon. After stage 17 and a sprint stage to Pau, the final mountain day, stage 19, covers the big passes Aspin, Tourmalet, Bordères, and the Col du Soulor­ leading the Aubisque at 1709 meters.

“When you climb Soulor and Aubisque, with the Tourmalet, it’s horrible,” Portal said. “You could end up with a proper race on the last climb, with three to four guys racing to the top and dropping down to Laruns for the finish. It’s just before the last time trial. It can be really tricky.”

Vila lives just over the border in Spain and trained often on the roads. Especially, in the area that hosts the stage 20 time trial.

“The roads are sometimes different, almost always, the valleys are sharper in the Pyrenees compared to the Alps,” Vila said. “The gradients are there, but you feel it less than in the Alps. Also, the weather can change so quickly. When you are close to the Atlantic, the rain can come in a few hours, from full sun to rain.”