Muscular stage in the Massif
This near-200-kilometer stage through the Massif Central is one of those stages than can catch people out. Before the Saint-Étienne-to-Mende stage in 1995, the overall standings looked pretty set after a long time trial and two stages in the Alps.
Race leader Miguel Induráin had a 2:27 lead over second-place Alex Zülle, with top Frenchman Laurent Jalabert in sixth overall, more than nine minutes back. This year’s stage route is not the same as then, being 30 kilometers shorter, but it’s just as difficult, with 3,400 meters (over 11,000 feet) of vertical gain. The opening section has some long hills ideal for attacks where 27 years ago Jalabert began a dangerous breakaway that grew to six-strong, two of them his ONCE teammates.
They gained 10 minutes, putting Jalabert in the virtual yellow jersey, as the stage passed through Le Puy-en-Velay and Le Bouchet-Saint-Nicolas along remote roads made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson in his 1879 book “Travels with A Donkey.”
But across plateaus exposed to the wind Induráin got enough support to begin closing the gap. The stage again finishes atop the fearsome Croix Neuve climb (3 kilometers at 10.2 percent) at Mende, where Jalabert won the stage, consolidated his green jersey, finished almost six minutes ahead of the GC leaders and moved into third overall. Maybe we’ll get a similarly aggressive stage this year.