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The 2019 Tour de France takes on its first real mountain test on Thursday’s stage 6, which covers seven categorized climbs en route to a finish at La Planche des Belles Filles.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas (Ineos) expects the GC battle to come into focus on the climb in France’s Vosges mountains. It’s easy to see why, considering the seven-kilometre climb features a taxing 8.7% average gradient.
“It’s not quite as hard as say the Tourmalet or the other mountain-top finishes but it’s more than an appetizer, it’s a real start,” Thomas said, according to Cyclingnews. “It’s going to be 100% racing.”
Thomas has prior experience on the climb. He wore the yellow jersey into the La Planche des Belles Filles stage of the 2017 edition of the Tour (stage 5), but lost time on the steep slopes of the ascent. Fabio Aru (now with UAE-Team Emirates) won the stage. Thomas ceded the maillot jaune to teammate Chris Froome, who would go on to take the overall victory.
“I raced up it a couple of years ago and I lost the yellow jersey, so that’s not the best memory,” Thomas said.
The stage 2 team time trial has been the major differentiator in the general classification battle at the Tour de France so far, but La Planche des Belles Filles seems too steep for anything other than a GC shakeup. Plus, this year’s visit to the climb features an even harder challenge — riders must traverse a high-gradient kilometre of unpaved roads near the top.
“The new part is like the rest of the climb: It kicks up again and [the] last 250 meters are really steep,” Thomas said. “The extra last kilometre will make it tougher.”
Thomas is not the only Ineos rider looking to deliver a strong performance on stage 6. Teammate Egan Bernal is the bookmakers’ favorite to win the stage. La Planche des Belles Filles could be a key moment within the squad, which has yet to narrow down its support to one rider or the other. Thomas mentioned Bernal as one of the contenders whose skillset is best suited to the climb’s metrics, also naming Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
For his part, Bernal acknowledged that stage 6 is “the first real mountain stage,” but preferred to downplay his own ambitions, as he has down throughout the run-up and first few days of the Tour.
“If I do a good Tour, then that’s good but if not I’m just 22 and it’s my second Grand Tour,” the young Colombian said. “I just want to enjoy it.”
For now, all that fans and journalists have to go on is the words of the Tour’s two top contenders. But by Thursday afternoon, the steep slopes of the Tour’s first mountaintop finish should offer plenty more insight into which riders are bona fide contenders and which are pretenders in France this July.