BERN, Switzerland (AFP) — Spending four days in the Alps might sound relaxing, but it will be anything but that for Chris Froome and his Tour de France rivals.
Wednesday sees the start of the final push from Bern, Switzerland all the way to Paris and Tour glory.
In the meantime, there will be a lot of suffering, starting with the 184.5-kilometer 17th stage to Finhaut-Emosson.
It’s an aptly-named destination, Finhaut meaning “high finish” and reaching almost 2,000 meters above sea level. The finish line arrives at the end of a 30km stretch that includes 23km of climbing.
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It will surely test Froome and his rivals to their limits, coming at the end of a mountainous stage that penetrates deep into the Alps.
The Sky rider has a healthy lead of 1:47 over his closest rival, Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo), but all the pre-Alpine talk was about attacking the yellow jersey and trying to prevent Froome landing a third Tour title in four years.
Having secured top-10 finishes in the previous three Tours, the 29-year-old Mollema is growing into his role as title-challenger.
“A two-minute gap to Froome is big. I can’t remember a time that I took two minutes from him in a TT or a mountain stage, but I am in the form of my life,” Mollema said.
The major difficulty will be the fact that the next four days include four tough Alpine stages, with Thursday’s 17km time trial followed by a pair of explosive stages, the first with an uphill finish and the second no less mountainous before its descent to the finish line.
“We’ve never yet done four such tough stages in a row at the end,” said Italian Fabio Aru of Astana, who is currently 10th overall but is determined to fight for a top-three finish. “So it will be interesting to see how everyone reacts to such selective challenges.”
Froome said from the start of the Tour he felt this would be the crucial period in the whole race. He adjusted his training accordingly and believes he is entering the final straight stronger than he was in previous years.
“Things have been fantastic for us up until now, so let’s see what this next block offers,” said the Kenyan-born Briton. “If other teams attack, we’re ready for it. We’re not gong to be complacent, we’re up for that challenge.”
But for Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, the 26-year-old Colombian who finished runner-up to Froome in 2013 and last year, the race is now entering his favored terrain. He may have disappointed so far in this Tour, but Quintana has previously taken time from Froome in the Alps — one minute in 2013 and two minutes last year.
This time, he has three minutes to make up.
“You don’t always climb as well as you’d like, but good days are coming in terrain where I have made my name,” Quintana said. “I’m really hoping to do well there. We’re still in good shape, no worse than last year I believe, and with a lot of hope.”
Quintana’s squad was dealt a blow Wednesday, however, when Gorka Izagirre was forced to abandon the race after a crash in the opening kilometer of Wednesday’s stage. He is the second Movistar rider to exit this Tour after Jesus Herrada left during stage 15 because of an illness.