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A look ahead: Time for the Spanish climbers to fight back

If you’re thinking that this Tour de France can’t serve up any more drama then just wait for Saturday’s finale in the first of four stages in the Pyrenees. It’s going to be hot again, and a Tour peloton wearied by a heat wave and super-sonic race speeds now has to tackle the most difficult phase of the race. Following Friday’s time trial and the shocking defeat of race leader Lance Armstrong by Jan Ullrich, speculation of the four-time champion riding to defeat is rampant. But there is so much climbing ahead that any speculation is meaningless until at least the end of Saturday’s

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Mayo and Zubeldia have nothing to lose

By John Wilcockson

If you’re thinking that this Tour de France can’t serve up any more drama then just wait for Saturday’s finale in the first of four stages in the Pyrenees. It’s going to be hot again, and a Tour peloton wearied by a heat wave and super-sonic race speeds now has to tackle the most difficult phase of the race.

Following Friday’s time trial and the shocking defeat of race leader Lance Armstrong by Jan Ullrich, speculation of the four-time champion riding to defeat is rampant. But there is so much climbing ahead that any speculation is meaningless until at least the end of Saturday’s stage.

There was a telling remark from Armstrong after he kept his yellow jersey but was obliterated by his perennial rival Ullrich in the stage 12, 47km time trial. Still sweating from his hour-long effort through the baking hot hills of the Tarn, the Texan was asked about how he is coping with the continuing heat wave.

“I suspect the bigger riders have a harder time with the heat versus the smaller riders, but I also saw the forecast for Sunday for storms in the Pyrenees, so,” he said. And then added with a smile, “That was good news.”

First, though, Armstrong has to recover, both physically and psychologically, from what was the most devastating stage defeat in his four-year Tour reign. He then has to get through another stage of 90-degree temperatures.

Saturday’s stage may be harder than he thinks, especially with five riders baying at his heels: Bianchi’s Ullrich, only 34 seconds back; Telekom’s Alex Vinokourov, at 51 seconds; CSC’s Tyler Hamilton at 2:59; and the two Spanish riders Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo of Euskaltel, both 4:29 back.

This 197.5-kilometer stage 13 could be more destructive than either Friday’s time trial or the six climbs on Sunday’s stage. Why? Because stage 13 has a summit finish that is immediately preceded by what should prove to be one of the toughest, if not the toughest climb in this year’s Tour.

It’s hard to figure why the organizers have given the Port de Pailhères only a Cat. 1 ranking, and not the toughest one of hors-categorie. It is longer and steeper than Alpe d’Huez or the renowned Col du Tourmalet coming up on Monday. It climbs for 25 kilometers, with the final 15 kilometers on an extremely narrow, switchback road that tops out at 2001 meters (6565 feet) elevation. The climb has an average 7.8-percent grade, with three long stretches at 10 percent or more. After crossing the peak, there follows a harrowing 20-kilometer-long descent on narrow and tortuous roads, before an immediate 9-kilometer climb to the finish at Ax-3 Domaines on the Plateau de Bonascre.

The Port de Pailhères has never been included in the Tour, because it is fairly remote and was deemed too narrow for the Tour in previous years. Its “unknown” quality could make it even more destructive. The Bonascre summit climb has been used once before, in 2001, when Colombian Félix Cardenas took the win on a stage that had a much easier approach than the Pailhères, and on which Armstrong rode away from Ullrich.

The two adversaries probably won’t be anxious to make huge efforts 24 hours after the time trial, but they’ll have to respond to the expected attacks on the Pailhères climb from Zubeldia and Mayo, and probably from the opportunistic Vinokourov, too. Hamilton, who rode a strong time trial Friday to move up to fourth, continues to show he is in superb shape; and despite his broken clavicle he appears ready to capitalize on any mistakes made by the three men preceding him in the overall classification.

No doubt a breakaway group will go away on the 140 kilometers of rolling terrain that lead to the foot of the giant climb, but the best climbers will likely overhaul the early leaders before the summit, and so will fight out the stage win at Ax-3 Domaines. There is a forecast for some cloud cover at the finish, but Armstrong will have to wait until Sunday for the rain.