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More fireworks in the Pyrénées?

Although the weather at the Tour has changed from blazing hot to cloudy and humid, the tactics at the race are likely to continue in their aggressive fashion on Wednesday. You can never predict what will happen next. There have had crashes that have eliminated pre-race favorites like Joseba Beloki and Levi Leipheimer, and handicapped another, Tyler Hamilton. And there have been unexpectedly strong performances by Bianchi’s Jan Ullrich, Telekom’s Alex Vinokourov, and the Euskaltel pair Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia. On Wednesday, the two riders from the Basque Country will get a chance for

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Tour’s last mountain stage is bound to be eventful

By John Wilcockson

Although the weather at the Tour has changed from blazing hot to cloudy and humid, the tactics at the race are likely to continue in their aggressive fashion on Wednesday. You can never predict what will happen next. There have had crashes that have eliminated pre-race favorites like Joseba Beloki and Levi Leipheimer, and handicapped another, Tyler Hamilton. And there have been unexpectedly strong performances by Bianchi’s Jan Ullrich, Telekom’s Alex Vinokourov, and the Euskaltel pair Iban Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia.

On Wednesday, the two riders from the Basque Country will get a chance for one more attack, and this time it will be in the mountain climbs closest to their homeland. In fact, the announcers at the stage 16 finish will speak in both French and Basque, so strong are the ties across the Spanish border.

On paper, this final mountain stage of the Tour doesn’t appear to be as challenging as the past three days in the Pyrénées. Admittedly, there are two difficult Category 1 climbs, but the second of these is 87km from the finish in Bayonne.

On the other hand, from where the Col du Soudet begins climbing after 51 kilometers until the end of the descent of the Col de Burdincurutcheta 80 kilometers later, the riders will be on very narrow, tortuous back roads with constant ups and downs.

The climbs are steep. The Soudet has 15-percent pitches and an average of 7.5 percent for 14 kilometers; the Côte de Larrau averages 10.5 percent for 2.4 kilometers; and the Col de Bagargui, 9.2 percent for 8.8 kilometers. The final 60 kilometers are not so flat, with several short hills to keep things split up.

The Tour has visited these climbs very few times in its 100-year history, and not in the direction that this stage will take the race. In 1987, the Bayonne-Pau stage climbed the Burdincurutcheta, descended the Bagargui and climbed the back side of the Soudet; it was that Tour’s first mountain stage and resulted in a four-up break (led by the Colombian climbers Pablo Wilches and Luis Herrera) that finished almost four minutes ahead of a 30-man chase group; the main pack was a half-hour behind.

The last time the Soudet was climbed in the direction of this stage was in 1996, when defending champion Miguel Induráin was among those dropped on the marathon stage to Pamplona. A small breakaway group headed by yellow jersey Bjarne Riis arrived in Pamplona many minutes ahead of a shattered field, with Laurent Dufaux taking the stage win.

After this Tour’s second rest day, the 161 survivors have had time to recover from the last three intensive days of climbing. And with this being the final chance for the climbers to snag a stage, expect an exciting battle on the Soudet and Bagargui climbs, with their long, technical descents given breaks a chance to consolidate.

It’s possible that Ullrich and Vinokourov will again try to destabilize race leader Lance Armstrong. But this rugged stage looks made for one of the Basques. Ullrich won’t be keen to let Mayo go after he snatched a bonus from him on Monday’s stage, and Zubeldia is too close on GC to be allowed to get clear, so it’s more likely that their 15th-placed teammate Roberto Laiseka will be able to get into a break. The chances are that a small breakaway will arrive in Bayonne and the victory could go to someone from outside the top 10, riders like Gerolsteiner’s Georg Totschnig, Alessio’s Dufaux or Cofidis’s Massimiliano Lelli — all from teams that have so far not won a stage.