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STATION DES ROUSSES, France (CT) – It’s not a mountain-top finish, but there’s every chance that stage 9 of the 2017 Tour de France will be among the most decisive of the entire race. With seven categorised climbs and more than 4,000 vertical metres of climbing, there’s little doubt it’s among the Tour’s most challenging stages, if not the toughest.
Of the day’s seven climbs, three have the highest possible difficulty rating due to their punishing gradient: the Col de la Biche (10.5km at 9%), the Grand Colombier (8.5km at 9.9%), and the Mont du Chat (8.7km at 10.3%).
It’s the last of those, the day’s final climb, that will be a focal point tomorrow. As race leader Chris Froome notes, the Mont du Chat is challenging enough on its own, but coming at the end of a long hard day increases the difficulty significantly.
“I think given where Mont [du] Chat is in the stage, coming after four big climbs already, and especially after the stage we just had today, I think it could be a very decisive climb at the Tour,” Froome said. “When you’re climbing, most of the time the gradient is around 10% [and it’s] not a short climb either — it takes over half an hour to get up there …
“It’s really going to quite selective — I imagine it’s going to blow the general classification wide open.”
It’s not the first time the professional peloton has raced up the Mont du Chat this year. Stage 6 of last months’s Criterium du Dauphine took the riders up the climb before a hair-raising descent to the finish in La Motte-Servolex. On that day, the Mont du Chat wreaked havoc. It was there that the breakaway’s three-minute advantage was quickly eroded, and that the peloton was thinned down to just four potential stage winners.
The day was won by Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), the Dane outsprinting Richie Porte (BMC), Froome, and teammate Fabio Aru on his way to overall victory in the race. Fuglsang told CyclingTips at the end of today’s stage 8 of the Tour de France that he expects tomorrow’s stage to unfold differently to stage 6 of the Dauphine.
“I think the Mont du Chat: we’re not going to come [as] such a big group as in the Dauphine,” Fuglsang said. “It’s going to be a different race because of the two climbs before. I think it’s going to be a completely different race and a stage where it’s going to be a bit like today — maybe just that there will be no breakaway; just a bunch that’s riding full gas the whole day.”
While not as hard as tomorrow, today’s stage 8 was far from easy. A strong breakaway got up the road, with several would-be GC contenders in their midst. To protect the yellow jersey, Team Sky rode a hard tempo on the front of the peloton all day, ensuring a challenging stage for all in tow. That effort is certain to have an impact tomorrow.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a monster stage, especially after the stage we had today,” Froome said. “That was already a really tough stage today and I think there’s going to be some tired legs. I expect there to be some really big gaps in the general classification after tomorrow’s stage.”
Tomorrow’s stage doesn’t end at the top of the Mont du Chat — rather, it’s 26km from the summit to the finish in Chambéry. The first half of that comprises the road off the Mont du Chat; a very narrow, technical descent that made for thrilling albeit nerve-wracking viewing during the Criterium du Dauphine.
While Froome attacked Porte and Fuglsang on that descent in the Dauphine, the gap he opened was ultimately short-lived. Speaking today, the three-time Tour winner said he sees the descent off the Mont du Chat as something of a post-script to the real challenge of tomorrow’s stage.
“It’s a fast descent; it’s a fast, tricky descent, but in my opinion it’s more about the climb tomorrow,” Froome said. “That climb is savage, especially coming quite late in the race.”
Irishman Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors), who currently sits fourth overall, offers a similar analysis.
“People point out that it is downhill and then flat to the finish after the last climb, but if you are not in the front group, if you are the one who gets dropped, you could lose minutes,” Martin told CyclingTips after stage 7. “On mountain top finishes, even if you are having a bad day you can still limit your losses to a minute. But if you are isolated on your own on the top of the last climb and there are a group of four or five riders in front willing to work together, in that 25 kilometres to the finish you can definitely lose two or three minutes.”
While the climb will almost certainly cause carnage in the bunch, the challenge of the Mont du Chat descent shouldn’t be discounted. At the time of writing the weather forecast suggests rain for stage 9. Should that come to fruition, it could change the complexion of the stage completely. An already challenging descent would be made treacherous, particularly for those pushing the limits of their ability to stay clear of or catch their rivals.
“If we do get rain and hail, that’s definitely going to have some impact on the race for sure,” Froome said.
While stage 6 of the Criterium du Dauphine finished just two kilometres after the Mont du Chat descent, tomorrow’s stage of the Tour is different. Once off the mountain it’s a relatively flat 13.5km to the finish line in Chambéry. While the climb is likely to be the stage’s most decisive point, and while the descent is a not-insignificant challenge in it’s own right, these final flat kilometres shouldn’t be ignored either.
The terrain will suit a larger group, meaning it will be hard to catch a bunch of any decent size that gets to the bottom together. Equally, a chasing group will have an advantage in those final kilometres should it be a single rider or handful of riders in the lead. Of course, both scenarios assume an element of cohesion in such a group.
So, who does stage 9 favour? For a start, it’s worth mentioning that of the four riders that contested the finish on stage 6 of the Dauphine, three are currently in the top five on GC at the Tour de France — Froome, Aru and Porte. More generally though, the winner will have to be an exemplary climber, a courageous and technically gifted descender, strong on the flatlands, a rider with great endurance and ability to recover, and, potentially, a rider with a strong kick after a long, hard day in the mountains.
In many ways, it will be the perfect test to see who’s the most well-rounded rider at the 2017 Tour de France. And with so few opportunities for the GC riders at this year’s race, and with stage 9 being the last before the first rest day, there’s really no reason for any of the contenders to hold back.