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Tour de France

Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Into the Massif Central

Rain showers and breakaways in the forecast this weekend

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Rain showers and breakaways in the forecast this weekend

2011 Tour de France, stage 6: Hushovd
Saturday is likely to be Hushovd's last day in yellow for this Tour. Photo: Graham Watson

After a week of racing at tight quarters in the peloton on mainly flat to rolling roads that have produced far too many crashes, the remaining Tour de France contenders are relieved that the focus is on climbing this weekend. It’s disappointing that broken collarbones have eliminated two pre-race favorites, Brad Wiggins of Sky and Jani Brajkovic of Team RadioShack but, as the virtual overall standings show, there are still a dozen serious contenders for the final yellow jersey.

Unfortunately, crashes have all but ruined the chances of the North American contenders. Only Garmin-Cervélo’s Christian Vande Velde is still within range of a high overall placing, but the best his Canadian teammate Ryder Hesjedal can hope for is a top-10 finish. Stage wins are a more realistic goal for the Garmin riders, while Team RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, now that they are respectively four and 12 minutes off the pace, have to turn their attention to working for their team’s one remaining GC contender, Andreas Klöden of Germany.

On the bright side, the time lost by the North Americans gives them a chance of figuring in breakaways especially in this weekend’s two lumpy stages through the Massif Central. Once the race gets to the high mountains of the Pyrénées next week, the hottest yellow-jersey contenders — Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, the Schleck brothers of Leopard-Trek and Alberto Contador of Saxo Bank-SunGard — will be in the terrain where their strengths are greatest.

What stages 8 and 9 offer this weekend are shorter mountain climbs, usually grouped close together, which with narrow, twisting back roads give opportunities for the more enterprising all-around riders like Hesjedal and Vande Velde. Both stages finish on climbs — a steep one Saturday, less steep on Sunday — but there won’t be a complete peloton coming to the base of those climbs, as there was at Mûr-de-Bretagne last Tuesday

Besides the smaller roads, hillier terrain and general rider fatigue after a week of high-speed racing, the factor that could be decisive over the weekend is challenging weather conditions. The forecast for the climbs the latter half of stage 8 is temperatures in the mid-60s and a 30-percent chance of rain; stage 9 should have slightly warmer temperatures and 50-percent chance of rain.

Stage 8: Tough uphill finish

2011 Tour de France stage 8 profile
The stage 8 profile

The first half of Saturday’s 189km course between Aigurande and Super-Besse is on rolling roads through central France, so we can expect to see an early break of four to six riders similar to those that have formed on each of the flatter stages so far. But because the sprinters have no chance of winning this stage, the responsibility of controlling the peloton and chasing down breaks will wrest with the Garmin squad of yellow jersey Thor Hushovd and the teams aiming for a stage win (and/or time gains on GC). This group includes BMC for Evans, who was third on this same finish three years ago; Saxo Bank for Contador, who didn’t ride that 2008 Tour but will like the steep ramp to the line; and perhaps Lampre-ISD for Damiano Cunego, who excels on this type of finish.

To avoid a sprint finish (admittedly from a smallish peloton), riders like Hesjedal and the main French hope, Thomas Voeckler of Europcar, will have to instigate or go with attacks on or before the nasty climb over the narrow, winding Col de la Croix St. Robert that starts 31km from the finish.

Some 6km long and graded between 6 and 8 percent, the St. Robert has a fast, twisting downhill that’s followed by 15km on an extremely narrow back road that has three sharp uphills and descent before reaching the town of Besse-et-St. Anastaise — where the climb to the finish begins.

The 6km haul to Super-Besse start outs with a 10-percent pitch in the town on an initial 2.5km uphill to reach a plateau before dropping for 1.5km to a roundabout, where the final ramp begins. It’s 1.5km long, averaging 7.6 percent, but with a double-digit stretch in the middle and a less-steep, curving run to the line.

When the race finished here three years ago, only a dozen riders were within 20 seconds of stage winner Riccardo Riccò (who was later disqualified for doping with CERA, an advanced form of EPO), with another 30 riders within one minute. Of those riding this year’s Tour, the order of finish was: Evans, Fränk Schleck, Roman Kreuziger, Samuel Sanchez, Yury Trofimov, Dmitry Fofonov and Vande Velde.

Stage 9: Eight climbs

2011 Tour de France stage 9 profile
Stage 9 profile

Virtual GC after stage 7

GC positions of the top 20 contenders
1. Cadel Evans 1,194km in 28:29:28
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:03
3. Andreas Klöden at 0:09
4. Andy Schleck at 0:11
5. Tony Martin at 0:12
6. Peter Velits s.t.
7. Robert Gesink at 0:19
8. Alexander Vinokourov at 0:31
9. Jorgen Van den Broeck at 0:38
10. Ivan Basso at 1:02
11. Nicolas Roche at 1:11
12. Damiano Cunego s.t.
13. Alberto Contador at 1:41
14. Christian Vande Velde at 1:56
15. Samuel Sanchez at 2:35
16. Jérôme Coppel at 3:15
17. Ryder Hesjedal at 4:27
18. Levi Leipheimer at 4:28
19. Roman Kreuziger at 5:34
20. Chris Horner at 12:58

Sunday’s 208km stage from Issoire to St. Flour is by far the most difficult one before reaching the Pyrénées next Thursday. It features eight climbs, including five in a 55km stretch (with three Cat. 2 hills) to kick off the second half of the stage. The second of these climbs is the Col du Perthus, which averages 8 percent for 4.4km with its second kilometer at a leg-breaking 14 percent, on narrow roads.

2004 Tour de France, Axel Merckx and Richard Viranque. Photo: Graham Watson
Axel Merckx and Richard Viranque in 2004 on a stage similar to Sunday's. Photo: Graham Watson

This quick succession of climbs ending with the Cat. 2 Prat de Bouc will almost certainly break up or end any early breakaway, while the final 50km of narrow back roads (including the 2km Château d’Alleuze hill 15km from the finish) will not help the peloton close down any front groups. Then, at St. Flour, the final 1.6km to the line climbs at some 6 percent to the heart of this medieval hilltop town.

A similar stage to this one in 2004 was won by Frenchman Richard Virenque after a long solo break, after dropping Belgian Axel Merckx some 50km out. The peloton rode negatively that day partly because of blazing temperatures, but the expected rain showers and cooler temperatures this weekend should encourage more aggressive racing.

On that stage seven years ago, a 60-strong peloton arrived five minutes after Virenque, with Klöden taking second place in the uphill sprint ahead of (listing current riders only) Voeckler, Basso and Leipheimer. This year’s much tougher route might see these same riders doing well, while it should also suit Contador, the Schlecks, Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov and AGR-La Mondiale’s Nicolas Roche.