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Tour de France

Don’t underestimate stage 16 of the Tour de France

Stage 17 has gotten plenty of hype, but the peloton will first have to navigate Tuesday's tricky stage 16.

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The Tour de France rolls into the Pyrenees this week for a final stretch of mountain stages that will likely decide the race. Stage 17 has gotten plenty of hype, with its three brutal climbs across just 65 kilometers that are sure to provoke fireworks — but the peloton will first have to navigate Tuesday’s tricky stage 16.

Featuring three mountain ascents — and three mountain descents — inside the final 70 kilometers, the 218-kilometer stage is not one the Tour’s GC hopefuls can afford to underestimate. And coming off a rest day, who knows how the legs of even the very best climbers will respond?

Things have been going smoothly for race leader Geraint Thomas and his Sky teammate Chris Froome, but the trek from Carcassone to Bagnères-de-Luchon will present them with new challenges.

Stage 16 starts out gently enough. The first 120 kilometers only throw a pair of category 4 climbs at the peloton as the Tour makes its way west towards the mountains.

Just after the intermediate sprint at kilometer 124, however, riders will begin to feel the first bite of the Pyrenees in their legs as the road rises into the foothills. A gradual 25-kilometer uphill stretch will then ratchet up into a category two climb. 5.4 kilometers at 7.1 percent, it will be an unpleasant first offering in a three-course meal of cols.

Going up will be hard, but going down will be a test in its own right. The descent from the top of the Col de Portet d’Aspet is a steep one. That’s going to be a recurring theme for the final hour and a half of racing.

After the descent comes the first-category Col de Menté, 6.9 kilometers at 8.1 percent. Things kick up over nine percent near the top. Don’t be surprised if one or two notables in the GC group find themselves lacking on the punchy gradients after a relaxing day off on Monday. At the same time, don’t be surprised to see someone fire off an attack near the summit. What comes next will offer an enterprising all-rounder plenty of opportunity to pick up more time.

Once the riders get up and over the Menté, they’ll take on a hair-raising 9.5-kilometer descent whose downhill gradient nears double digits. At the bottom, things tilt upward one last time, initially for a lengthy false flat and then more aggressively for the category one Col du Portillon, which briefly takes the Tour into Spain with 8.3 kilometers of climbing at 7.1 percent.

Although none of the day’s climbs is especially long, the pack will really start to feel the cumulative effect of three steep kickers at the end of the stage.

The stage does not finish atop the Portillon, however. From the top, the riders will immediately tilt downward back into France for a nasty final descent that again nears double digits of negative gradient. It’s a tricky enough finale that anyone who attacks on the final climb will have a fine chance of holding a gap all the way to the finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon, where the road flattens out for the last kilometer.

The up-and-down parcours will make stage 16 a very hard one to control — the stage itself could go to a breakaway rider. As for the GC riders, they’ll be faced with repeated opportunities for chaos. The climbs may be relatively short, but they are steep enough to launch attacks. And coming off a rest day, the favorites’ group is likely to see some riders feeling better than others, as everyone seems to respond differently to the challenge of mountain roads on the heels of a day off.

Thomas, for all his talent, has never contended for the general classification into the third week of a grand tour. Could he crack as he forges on into uncharted territory? Froome and Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin both decided to attempt the elusive Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double this year. Will they finally start to feel the miles when the Tour hits the Pyrenees?

Those descents provide their own question marks. Riders like Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) will be keenly aware that man in the yellow jersey has run into trouble on the downhills before. On the other hand, Froome himself has been the aggressor on a few tricky descents in his career, especially in recent years. Will any of the marquee GC riders try to escape on the nervous run into Bagnères-de-Luchon?

The yellow jersey hopefuls will likely be riding with one eye toward Wednesday’s stage 17, a uniquely short but vicious day in the Pyrenees that is sure to deliver action. Just the same, opportunities will be there for the taking on Tuesday too.

We’ll find out soon enough if anyone has the legs and the nerve to roll the dice.