QUIMPER, France (VN) — The climbers will finally come to the fore on Thursday after several hectic days that have seen the Tour de France‘s GC contenders fighting to stay upright at the front of the peloton. The race arrives at its first categorized uphill finish on stage 6, Mûr de Bretagne.
“On paper, it doesn’t look too much, but it will be hard,” Tejay van Garderen (BMC) said.
The majority of the 181km stage will roll over gentle roads before the difficulty ratchets up in the final 20 kilometers. The pack will make two trips up the third-category Mûr de Bretagne climb. They’ll go up and over for the first time with 16 kilometers to go, with an uncategorized ascent to Saint-Mayeux to follow, before looping back downhill to make the second and final visit.
Two kilometers in length at a 6.9 percent average gradient, the Mûr de Bretagne will whittle the pack down the first time up before the second ascent sees the battle for the stage win.
The Tour de France last finished on the Mûr de Bretagne in 2015, when Alexis Vuillermoz stormed to victory in stage 8. Dan Martin was second on the day, five seconds back, with Alejandro Valverde taking third at the head of a 25-rider group. Several notables lost time; Vincenzo Nibali and Thibaut Pinot came home 20 seconds back, while Romain Bardet gave up 31 seconds.
According to the sport directors VeloNews spoke to ahead of the stage, the battle for position leading up to that first passage could be fierce. The Tour’s first week has proven stressful so far — as expected — and a lumpy finale with potential for splits could ratchet up the chaos.
“We’re going to have a tricky run in to the Mûr de Bretagne,” said EF Education First-Drapac sports director Andreas Klier. “Stressful as usual.”
For Bahrain-Merida sport director Gorazd Stangelj, the tension will ease at least a little bit after the first passage of the climb as the pack reshuffles with fewer riders.
“The first time we’ll be fighting for positions and then a lot of riders will be dropped after that once their leaders are in a good position,” he said. “Less chaotic, much better for the GC riders.”
Even if the second and final trip up the climb is less likely to see a nervous crash, the stakes will be higher as the finish line nears. The gaps between the yellow jersey hopefuls will more likely be measured in seconds than in minutes, but there will certainly be gaps in Stangelj’s opinion. Although the climb’s short length will make it an effort of just a few minutes, there is only so much space on the road. Those stuck farther back when the attacks begin to fly will be caught behind splits.
Bonus seconds will give the yellow jersey hopefuls even more incentive to fight for the front. They won’t be alone, considering the robust field of puncheurs in attendance.
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Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe and Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Sonny Colbrelli (Bora-Hansgrohe) will fight to be in the mix for the stage victory.
BMC will be faced with an interesting choice as Greg Van Avermaet makes the stage 6 start wearing the maillot jaune. Will the team ride for its man in yellow, who has a legitimate shot at the stage win? Or will it be all in for the rider they hope will ride into Paris wearing the jersey in two weeks, Richie Porte?
The presence of a handful of stage hunters will further complicate things for the GC riders on the final climb, but the more explosive overall contenders do have a fighting chance to win and gain time. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), for instance, will like their chances. Adam Yates will be a dark horse worth following.
As for the yellow jersey hopefuls with less punch, they will look to leverage strong positioning to stay in the mix.
Everyone out on the windy Breton roads, however, will have at least one shared objective: staying upright. It’s been the central theme most sport directors have been preaching for the first week of the Tour so far, and it’s the one they’ll continue to preach through stage 9 to Roubaix before the GC riders finally arrive at the first rest day and the Alpine terrain more suited to their strengths.