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Can the Tour de France bring short-stage chaos?

Sunday’s final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné got it right. Whether the Tour can repeat that drama remains to be seen.

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It has become a truism of modern grand tours that short stages bring racing chaos. But that isn’t always true. Fomenting chaotic racing requires a meticulous sort of chemistry. Mix everything together wrong and you’ll get more fizzle than bang.

Sunday’s final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné from Albertville to Pleateau de Solaison got it right. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) tore the yellow jersey off Richie Porte’s (BMC Racing) shoulders by a mere 10 seconds. Almost every major contender found himself isolated far from home, surrounded only by adversaries. It was pure, thrilling, and tactical racing, a feast for fans built on a recipe that ASO will hope to replicate in a month’s time at the Tour de France. That will take place in the Pyrenees via a 100km stage from Saint-Girons to Foix.

But can it work again?

How to stir up chaotic grand tour racing

It takes more than chucking a lone short stage into the pot to shake up a stage race. These stages are not some magic potion. They require a careful mix of fatigue and route selection.

There are three vital components to creating chaos. First, the prior stage has to be hard and aggressive. Not just hard on the GC favorites, hard on the race leader’s team. That’s the important part. Second, the short stage has to open with an early climb. Early enough that any breakaway likely has one or more GC favorites in it. Third, multiple GC contenders must be within striking distance of the lead. This forces the leader to spread his focus to more than one rival.

The importance of the prior stage was made clear at the Vuelta’s famous Formigal stage last fall and confirmed at the Dauphiné Sunday. At the Vuelta, Formigal followed a 196km slog across four huge climbs, finishing on the Col d’Aubisque. At the Dauphiné, Saturday was a 167km day to Alpe d’Huez. Both days left the team surrounding the race leader fatigued. Domestiques spent all day covering moves, and then had to wake up and try to do it again. They couldn’t.

This was illustrated by the Giro d’Italia’s attempt at disorder in stage 18, a 137km romp with five categorized climbs that resulted in only relatively small time splits. The day before was hard, 219km to Canazei, but a large, strong breakaway rode clear and the GC contenders came in nearly eight minutes down. Tom Dumoulin’s teammates were not pressed.

Can it work at the Tour de France?

So let’s take a look at the Tour de France’s stage to Foix, stage 13, clearly intended to be a reincarnation of Formigal or Solaison.

The day before Foix, stage 12, is indeed difficult. It’s 214km, starting in Pau and ending in Peyragudes. It packs three climbs into the final 50km and opens hostilities with a big category 1 climb (Col de la Manté) at 75km to go.

The GC will be somewhat sorted by stage 13. Multiple uphill finishes, including Planche des Belles Filles and Station de Rousses, will take care of that. But gaps should still be relatively tight, as they were before Sunday’s Dauphiné stage. The big GC stage to Izoard will still be half a week away. Expect to see three to five GC contenders still holding onto dreams of yellow.

The race leader’s team will have its work cut out for it controlling the race across the initially lumpy and then downright mountainous course of stage 12. Its job will be further intensified by the fact that the Tour is unlikely to be a two-man race at this point. They’ll have to keep their eyes on everyone.

The short stage itself, stage 13, seems to have the right attributes as well. It’s only 100km long, remember. The first 25km rise slowly and then kick up abruptly to the first of three category 1 climbs, which tops out 31km in. The next peak is at 46km and the final at 74km. If the GC leader’s team is fatigued from the stage to Peyragudes and can’t follow across that first category 1, as was the case with Froome’s Sky team at Formigal, the yellow jersey will spend the next 65km holding the race together with only his own strength.

Things are looking good, right? Foix should be a corker.

But the Dauphiné is not the Tour. The Vuelta is not the Tour. The teams at the Tour are simply stronger, and thus less prone to the sort of disappointments that Froome suffered at Formigal and Porte suffered on Sunday.

That said, the Dauphiné squads for both BMC and Sky are relatively close to what those teams will bring to the Tour. Sky, in particular, brought a nearly complete Tour squad to the Dauphiné. BMC had at least half its Tour team at the Dauphiné. On Sunday, Porte was left without a single teammate and Froome only had Michal Kwiatkowski, who jumped into an early break. Not exactly confidence inspiring.

Could we finally see a bit of short-stage chaos come to the Tour de France? The ingredients are all there. But the racers make the race. In almost exactly one month, we’ll know for sure.