The old saying goes: the Tour de France is won on the Alpe.
It will be fascinating to see how the all-out warfare seen during stage 11 up the Col du Granon affects all the contenders on this similarly difficult stage in the Alps.
This is the second part of a cruel double-header, with three hors categorie tests on the 165.5km route between Briançon and Alpe d’Huez.
It will further space out the GC and settle the race’s hierarchy. The burning question is: will Jonas Vingegaard add to his lead or will Tadej Pogačar, smarting from his shock time loss, hit back?
It’s not just about Vingegaard versus the impressive Romain Bardet and Pogačar, who are 2:16 and 2:22 in arrears, but the four other riders within a minute of the Slovenian.
Nothing is certain; carrying the efforts of yesterday in their legs, those who flew on the Granon may grind and flounder on the Alpe.
From the start in the Alpine garrison town of Briançon, the race goes up the the Col du Galibier, using the wide, main road up the Col du Lautaret most of the way.
Calling that the “easier side” is a bit like referring to a flat marathon as straightforward. Topping out at 2,642 meters, the air is rarefied and riders will feel any effort.
The fight to get in the day’s breakaway will be fierce. No other stage has as many King of the Mountains points up for grabs, with twenty on offer for the first person over the summit of each HC climb.
The eventual winner of the competition will need to be up the road. On the French national holiday of Bastille Day, expect home riders to be especially hungry and aggressive.
After a long descent to the Maurienne valley below, with technical turns early on, it’s onto the Col de la Croix de Fer. While it totals 29 kilometers at 5.2 percent, its last eight kilometers are especially nasty and will see the group of favorites thinned down.
However, given that there are 40 kilometers from the iron cross there to the foot of Alpe d’Huez, we could see more of a waiting game, unless a contender is feeling bold and has teammates who can help drive the pace down and into the valley.
Alpe d’Huez: pain fest, fan party
Then it’s through Bourg d’Oisans and onto L’Alpe d’Huez. This is one of the most iconic and most-visited Tour de France climbs. There have been 30 finishes here, although the race didn’t return between its debut in 1952, won by Fausto Coppi, and 1976.
Taste victory here and you go down in history. Its 21 wide hairpins each have a plaque for a past winner, creating a frisson of excitement for any fan. This is unmistakably climbers’ territory: Lucho Herrera, Andy Hampsten, Marco Pantani, and Thibaut Pinot have all been triumphant here. The last winner was Geraint Thomas, on his way to Tour success in 2018.
This profile is an exact replica of the 1986 stage, too. Will we see Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Roglič crossing the line hand-in-hand à la Bernard Hinault and eventual winner Greg LeMond?
The hardest part comes at the bottom, with gradients of nine and 10 percent in the opening kilometers. But with 13.8 kilometers averaging 8.1 percent, there’s no hiding here, even if altitude won’t be such a factor. The previous climbs will take a toll.
“It will be a legendary stage, I think,” Tadej Pogačar said. “It will be fun to watch on TV but not so much for us riding up there.”
The spectacle offered by the Alpe is hard to beat. Spectators have been camped out in their chosen spots for days, some even weeks, in anticipation.
There is an Irish Corner, Norwegian Corner, and the famous Dutch corner, a sea of orange, beer, music, and noise. The Tour climbing the Alpe is like the Glastonbury festival meeting endurance sport.
“It’s a beautiful climb, I can’t wait to do it,” said Tour debutant Matteo Jorgenson of Movistar. “I’ve always seen video of people having parties on the climb. I’m also a bit nervous with COVID-19 to ride through however many people, drunk and screaming and saliva everywhere so hopefully we make it through without getting COVID!”
Tour reaching boiling point
France is in the middle of a heatwave. The mercury will be rising to 32C in the valley after the Col du Galibier at Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, with similar temperatures all day long.
However, being in the mountains, the bunch will avoid the worst of the heat, with a fair wind blowing through. Still, there’ll be water bottles galore consumed, plenty of ice socks down the backs of jerseys – and red fans on the Alpe.
Use that sunblock liberally, ladies and gentlemen.