With only an individual time trial and then the sprinters’ showdown in Paris to follow, Friday’s Pyrenean finale is the last chance for the climbers to make their mark on this year’s Tour de France. It will also be the final big test Sky’s Geraint Thomas must pass in his effort to win his first career grand tour.
“We are expecting the worst, hoping for the best. We are expecting a lot of attacks right from start,” Thomas said.
The Tour will trek into the mountains for one final time on stage 19, which runs from Lourdes to Laruns over six categorized climbs across its 200.5 kilometers. The first two ascents are fourth-category foothills in the early goings, with the category 1 Col d’Aspin kicking off the bona fide mountains 66 kilometers into the day.
After going up, over, and back down the other side, the peloton will take on the Col du Tourmalet, an hors categorie ascent of 17.1 kilometers at 7.3 percent.
The first rider over the legendary climb will earn a 5,000 euro prize before zipping up for a lengthy, high-speed descent. Even after reaching the foot of the climb, riders will continue going downhill until arriving on the outskirts of Argelès-Gazost, where the road will tilt skyward again for an uphill run-in to the category 2 Col des Bordères. A quick descent from the top leads into the start of the Col d’Aubisque.
The overall metrics of the hors categorie climb — the last of both the stage and the Tour — are deceiving. Although officially rated as 16.6 kilometers at 4.9 percent, the Col d’Aubisque features two distinct stretches of climbing. Riders will pitch upward for seven kilometers at around eight percent until reaching the Col du Soulor, then tilt downward for two kilometers before making the final push to the top. The last two kilometers average seven percent.
After summiting, riders will face one final twisting descent down to the finish in Laruns.
The parcours will provide launching pads to attack, both up and back down the Pyrenean climbs. That said, with the downhill run to the line, and with another critical stage on tap for Saturday, it remains to be seen how aggressive the heavy hitters in the general classification will be.
“It’s the last mountains stage and guys will try to take any opportunities they can, but in back of their minds, they still have the TT,” Thomas said. “It will be interesting, we’ve been riding well the whole race so we hope to keep that going the whole day.”
Movistar, stacked with climbers hoping to make up for a disappointing first two weeks in this Tour, is making no secret of its intentions. Mikel Landa said on Thursday the Spanish squad would look to put in a long-range attack on Friday.
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“We have to race with our heads. We have the team GC and we have two in the top 10,” he said. “It’s obvious that in the TT we can only defend, so tomorrow is the day we have to make some differences.”
For Thomas, stage 19 will be about protecting his lead. For all his talent and success in one-week events, the Welshman has never delivered a major GC result in a three-week race, and many expected him to fade as the race headed into the Pyrenees. He has defied those expectations so far, even as teammate Chris Froome suffered a bad day in stage 17 and dropped to third overall.
Froome may now be pressed into service for the rider who had long been his loyal lieutenant, although Sky is hoping to land both on the final podium.
“Hopefully we won’t have to use Froomey. Hopefully, we’ll have strength in numbers and he’ll be able to follow as well,” Thomas said. “Having Froomey at my disposal is phenomenal, really. It’ll be a big test.”
The most pressing challenges will likely come from the other big engines near the top of the leaderboard: Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo). Dumoulin in particular, currently second and 1:59 back, still poses a threat to Thomas, considering how well he is expected to perform in the stage 20 time trial.
“I think the chance of winning the Tour is very small but if I see an opportunity I will take it for sure,” Dumoulin said. “We will try to test Thomas and see if it’s possible.”
Thomas has proven more than capable in the mountains so far, but as Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang put it: “This is cycling. If you look back at the Giro, everything can change in one day.”
Anyone with aspirations of overhauling Thomas’s grip on the yellow jersey will hope stage 19 is that day. Time is running out for Sky’s rivals to keep him from standing atop the Tour de France podium in Paris.
Andrew Hood and Fred Dreier contributed to this report from Pau, France.