By John Wilcockson
If anyone thought that this last week of the tour was going to be a gentle promenade toward Paris, think again.
Tuesday’s stage from Pau to Lavaur gave a hint of what to expect on Wednesday, with a 25-man break averaging more than 44 kph on a marathon 232.5km stage littered with short, back-breaking hills. And the first, hillier half of the stage was conducted in almost perfect conditions: no wind, overcast skies and temperatures in the mid-60s. By the finish in the little town of Lavaur, the clouds had gone and the temperatures risen to the low 80s.
On Wednesday, there will be hot sunshine at the 11:30 a.m. start and the forecast is for 90-degree temperatures by mid-afternoon. The heat combined with the long distance (227.5km) and hills will make this 12th stage, from Castelsarrasin to Sarran across the Massif Central, a difficult one to control. On Tuesday already, Lance Armstrong’s Postal team had to work hard to bring back an early break that included the dangerous Santiago Botero of Kelme, and there are bound to be similar attacks on Wednesday.
The often narrow, winding back roads of the Dordogne area are tough on the legs, and the constant climbs in the final 60km will break things up even more. If there are any early breaks like stage 15’s they won’t stay together, so expect to see a small group or solo rider to arrive at the finish in Sarran, the hometown of French president Jacques Chirac. A perfect result, of course, would be a French stage winner –- perhaps a third win for Laurent Jalabert of CSC-Tiscali, or a first for Patrice Halgand of Jean Delatour.
Given the hilly terrain however, the more likely outcome is a victory for one of the so-far winless teams, notably Mapei-Quick Step, ONCE-Eroski or iBanesto.com. Whatever the result, it will be a stage that will start making this final week seem like a very long one.
DETAILS OF STAGE 16: Castelsarrasin to Sarran, 227.5km.
Intermediate sprints at Labastide-Murat (105.5km) and Laroche (166km).Cat. 3 climb at Lostanges (172.5km), and Cat. 4 climb at St. Adrian (200.5km).