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Tour de France analysis: Pyrénées, a bust or bust up?

Will they be a bust, or will the mix of altitude and descents bust up the bunch?

LAVAUR, France (VN) — The 2020 Tour de France hits the first major climbs this weekend with two stages across the Pyrénées.

And the question is, will they be a bust, or will the mix of altitude and descents bust up the bunch?

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Everyone agrees the Alps will be the kingmaker of this year’s edition, yet the Pyrénées could play spoiler.

“They are going to be two complicated stages,” said defending champion Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers). “As always, go day by day, and if there’s an opportunity, we’ll try to take advantage of it.”

Each modern Tour always features both the Alps and the Pyrénées, and depending on which way the “big loop” swings around France, one comes before the other.

This year, the Pyrénées are on the menu first. With the Tour route back-loaded with the hardest and most decisive stages packed in the Alps, there might be a danger the Pyrénées stages could be overlooked.

The riders will have their radar turned on, and there’s a hint that riders are already growing weary after a week of intense racing.

Sepp Kuss
Kuss says while the Alps loom in the distance, the group has to get over the Pyrénées first. Photo: James Startt

“Everyone is talking about the Alps, but we know we have to get through the Pyrénées safely,” said Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma). “The last week is so hard, but everyone knows these upcoming stages will be very important.”

Friday’s transition stage proved how perilous any Tour stage can be. A fistful of favorites lost time, including Tadej Pogačar, Richard Carapaz, Richie Porte, Bauke Mollema, and Mikel Landa.

Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) safely surfed the turbulence and rides into the Pyrénées in the unexpected position of being in yellow.

“We wanted a calm stage before the Pyrénées, but other teams had a different idea,” Yates said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do tomorrow.”

This year, there are eight climbs packed into two stages, with three Saturday and five Sunday. Both are short and potentially explosive, with 141km from Cazères-sur-Garonne to Loudenville on Saturday, and 153km from Pau to Laruns on Sunday.

Though he’s still nursing a slender lead, Yates is a top-notch climber who should be able to match any aggression. With downhill finales both days, many expect the strongest riders to be able to stay together. Anyone who struggles could be out of the yellow jersey picture for good.

Wout van Aert motored the group through the middle of the climb.
Wout van Aert has been one of the strongest riders of the 2020 Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“It will be interesting to see how everyone rides tomorrow,” said Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who powered to another stage win Friday. “We know it’s the first big mountains, and people are getting tired. We will see who has the legs to win this Tour.”

Though everyone is looking to the Alps, the two stages in the Pyrénées still pack some punch.

There is plenty of vertical in both days, but each finish with downhill runs to the finish line. That changes the dynamics of the race and could see riders being able to limit the damage if they’re dropped on the steep side and can chase back on the descents.

“Both stages have their downhill finishes, it’s not like you can take 20 seconds and hold it to the finish and it makes a difference on GC,” said UAE-Emirates sport director Allan Peiper. “That’s a different scenario than in the final week, when we have the mountaintop finishes. At the moment, it’s a bit of a waiting game.”

On paper, Saturday’s stage is harder. The route features two first-category climbs — Col de la Menté at 59.5km and the Col de Peyresourde at 12km from the finish. In the middle is the Tour’s first hors catégorie climb at the Port de Balès at 104.5km.

Many expect more fireworks Saturday in the GC, as riders and teams will be pushing the pace to try to exploit any weaknesses or press the advantage.

“People are getting tired now, and in the Pyrénées we’ll get some more answers and really see who has the legs to win,” said Ineos Grenadiers sport director Gabriel Rasch. “The race really starts now.”

Sunday features five climbs, including two first-category climbs, with the Col de Marie Blanque last on the docket at 18km from the line in Laurens. The stage favors a breakaway, at least on paper, with the GC riders expected to be marking each other.

With the yellow jersey held by the most slender of margins, with Yates just three seconds ahead of Primož Roglič and nine seconds to Guillaume Martin, with Bernal lurking at 13 seconds, placement will also prove decisive.

For Yates, having non-threatening breakaways making it to the line to chew up time bonuses will be an ally.

And with a few big names losing time Friday, others will be under pressure to try to regain some time.

The Pyrénées might not have star billing in this Tour, but they also play a major role in any yellow jersey story.