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The Tour de France has traversed cobblestones and climbed high Alpine passes across its first two and a half weeks. A time trial still awaits on the penultimate stage. Many expect Wednesday’s stage 17, however, to be the battleground where the race is won or lost.
At just 65 kilometers in length, it is the shortest road stage at the Tour in over 30 years, and yet it packs immense punch into that stretch. Fourty-three of those kilometers will be spent climbing across three different brutal Pyrenean ascents. Most of the remaining kilometers will be spent on high-speed descents.
“Tomorrow is the decisive stage,” Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) said of the trek from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Saint-Lary-Soulan.
“People say it’s short, but it’s still three hours of racing. It’s not a short stage by any means. Even though it’s only 65km on paper, it’s going to be incredibly tough.”
The day will get underway with an unconventional “grid start” in the style of a Formula One race. Although it seems unlikely to make much of an impact considering typical road racing tactics, if there were ever a time a grid start might have an impact, it’s in a stage starting on the slopes of a category 1 climb.
The pack takes on the Col de Peyresourde en route to Peyragudes immediately from the gun. 14.9 kilometers in length with a 6.7 percent gradient, it’s a category 1 ascent sure to put some fatigue into the legs.
Then comes a tricky descent and a very brief flat section before the first-category Col de Val Louron-Azet. It’s relatively short at 7.4 kilometers but has a nasty 8.3 percent grade that might be more conducive to attacks if the day’s final ascent weren’t so hard.
After summiting, the race takes on one more descent before the brutal finishing climb. The hors categorie Col du Portet makes up for in difficulty what it lacks in name recognition; it is both longer and steeper than the Alpe d’Huez. The gradients dip into the double digits several times, including near the top. The summit finish at Saint-Lary-Soulan is the highest point in this year’s Tour.
Following a stage 16 that saw a detente among the GC riders, stage 17 is almost sure to see fireworks, particularly with a flat stage on offer for Thursday. It will be the best chance the climbers have left to make their mark on the race. For the GC riders lacking experience in three-week races — like race leader Geraint Thomas (Sky), for instance — it will be a huge challenge to overcome. There will also be big question marks for those coming into the race on the back of a Giro d’Italia, like Chris Froome (Sky) or Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
If fatigue sets in on the Col du Portet, the time losses will be significant.
In short, stage 17 will probably the hardest test the GC riders will face in this Tour de France.
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“The guys with the best legs will be first at the top of the climbs. There is not too much tactics with tomorrow,” Jack Bauer (Quick-Step Floors) said. “It’s a tricky one. Everyone goes on about the kilometers, it’s 65k, but it is going to be a three-hour race. It is going to be a very intense day.”
As ever, all eyes will be on Sky as the British squad looks to stay in control in the GC battle. The best storyline of the day could be within the team; will Thomas and Froome respond differently to the unconventional parcours?
“I’m not an expert but it almost suits [Thomas] better,” predicted Ian Boswell, who rode in Sky kit for years before transferring to Katusha-Alpecin over the offseason. “Froome tends to excel when the races are long and hard. The short stage could be a bit more challenging for Froome than G.”
Thomas gave some insight into Sky’s plans for the day, pointing out the dangers of going too hard too early with such a brutal finishing climb on tap.
“You need to treat the stage like a time trial. In a TT you wouldn’t want to go out too hard,” he said.
“It could be big gaps and well, so many different scenarios, as long as me and Froomey don’t race against each other that’s the main thing.”
Sunweb sport director Luke Roberts raised the possibility of anti-climax if a fatigued GC group opted for more conservative racing. Although that would likely spell the end of yellow jersey hopes for any of the riders currently outside the very top of the leaderboard, it has been as hard as ever to attack Sky at this Tour, thanks to the firepower that Sky’s lieutenants bring to the table.
“They have strong support with Bernal and Kwiatkowski. It’s difficult to isolate when they have guys like that,” Roberts said. “There are ways. If there is aggressive racing we could see all teams put in trouble.”
Sunweb’s GC rider, however, could be one of the GC hopefuls most likely to benefit from a more controlled race; the best strategy for Dumoulin over the next few days may be to look to the stage 20 as the best chance to climb up the GC leaderboard.
He — and the rest of the Tour peloton — will have to get through stage 17 first.
“I’ve never done a mountain stage that short,” Dumoulin said. “I’m curious to see what will happen.”
So are we, Tom.