MONTAUBAN, France (VN) — The Tour de France entered the Pyrenean mountains with a bang in 2015, but this 2016 edition, starting Friday with a stage over the Col d’Aspin to Lac de Payolle, crescendos with a brutal stage in Andorra on Sunday.
The pressure will be on Sky to take control after last year, when its leader Chris Froome won the Pierre-Saint-Martin stage and rode on to the overall title.
“We have a strong team,” said sport director Nicolas Portal, “but with it comes much responsibility.”
Belgian Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) leads the race after six days. Froome sits fifth at 5:17 minutes with a group of favorites including BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, Nairo Quintana of Movistar, and Astana’s Fabio Aru. They have 1:21 over two-time winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and 1:45 over another BMC rider, Richie Porte.
In 2015, Froome blasted his rivals when the race climbed its first high mountain to La Pierre-Saint-Martin. Richie Porte, his then-teammate, finished second at 59 seconds behind. Others were left scattered down the mountainside just near the border with Spain.
The lashing appeared to dampen everyone’s spirits and delay the classification fireworks until the Alps a week later.
“This year, the stages are gradually going harder in the Pyrénées,” Portal added. Friday’s stage covers flat roads until the climb up the Col d’Aspin. Instead of ending there, the Tour turns downhill to the Lac de Payolle mountain resort.
“I don’t think it’s hard enough. Wednesday [to Le Lioran] had 4,000 meters of climbing and was much harder than the stage will be tomorrow,” added Portal.
“It’ll be a good stage for an escape; maybe the GC will try something on the last climb. It’s long, with nine kilometers at eight percent. It’s hard, but the next day is really tough and hard. And then the next day, which is huge with 5,000 meters of climbing and you finish on a summit finish.”
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Stage 8 from Pau takes one of the classic Tour routes over the Col du Tourmalet and the Col de Peyresourde. The organizer typically does this from one direction or the other. This year, it finishes with a 15.5-kilometer descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon.
Froome and his Sky team did not spend much time previewing Friday’s or Saturday’s stage in June, but they did spend time on Sunday’s route to Andorra, with the Col de Beixalis and summit finish to Arcalis.
“Froome never did that Andorra stage finish, even that second last climb is hard. Remember, in the Vuelta he was supposed to do it, but he crashed and broke his foot at the start of the [Beixalis] climb. It’s steep, but that’s a point where we can or Movistar can make it harder, then the last climb is long and gradually on a quite wide road. They will start the last climb with sore legs and a lot of fatigue.”