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The Tour de France peloton will be looking to make the most of the flatlands and rolling hills of the Aude region Saturday.
A fearsome bloc of high mountain stages kicking off Sunday is likely to decide who rolls into Paris with the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys on their backs.
Yellow jersey contenders will need to leave it all on the roads of the Pyrénées in stages 15 through 18. Tadej Pogačar sits atop a mammoth 5:18 lead, meaning Jonas Vingegaard, Rigoberto Urán, and Ineos Grenadiers will need to launch an all-out assault if they’re to stand any chance of usurping the Slovenian’s seat on the Tour’s throne.
- Pogačar bends but doesn’t break on the Ventoux
- Battle with the time cut to return in Pyrénéan onslaught
- Can Vingegaard overthrow Pogačar in the Pyrénées?
Mark Cavendish will be in an equally important race when he hits the high ground.
The Manxman won’t be easing off now that has leveled the “Merckx mark” of 34 Tour stage wins. Deceuninck-Quick-Step has penciled in stages 19 and 21 to deliver Cavendish a record-breaking 35th victory, and with it, his second-ever Tour de France green jersey.
Cavendish currently holds a strong lead in the points competition against an ever-diminishing field of fastmen. But to secure the maillot vert, he needs to beat the broomwagon in the race through the mountains.
Cavendish survived the cutoff in the Alps by the narrowest margins. The consecutive days of Pyrénéan grind in the next week will bring a whole new level of hurt.
Pogačar braced for Pyrénéan onslaught
Tour organizers have chosen the steep slopes and unruly peaks of the Pyrénées as the crescendo of this year’s race in what makes for a rare pivot away from its regular Alpine conclusion.
The peloton will hit its highest point of the Tour during Sunday’s opener in Andorra in a stage packing dozens of kilometers at high altitude. A mountainous breakaway-style stage follows Monday’s rest day before a fearsome duo of summit finishes come on stages 17 and 18.
Pogačar displayed a glimmer of weakness when the Tour last turned uphill. The defending champ was briefly distanced on Mont Ventoux, later pointing toward the blazing heat of Provence as part of his undoing.
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 7, 2021
Pogačar is hoping that the notoriously hot sun of southwestern France won’t rock his cool-weather acclimated form through the next week. The 22-year-old also hinted Thursday that he may not continue the ferocious tempo he set when he built his near race-crushing margin in the Alps.
“It’s better to ride defensively, we saw on Ventoux that there are several very strong riders in the peloton,” he said.
“And anything can happen in the hot Pyrénées. If there is a really hot day I can also suffer. The time gap to second-place is big so I don’t worry too much but still, you never know.”
It will be up to Pogačar’s rivals to make the racing in the mountains to come. Ineos Grenadiers banged away at the front on the Ventoux double Tuesday to no net gain. It was a tactic that confused some, but one that Carapaz and co. plans to stick to.
“The Tour is no sprint, it’s a marathon,” Carapaz said. “The longer you’re up in the top positions, the better your chance of success long-term.
“The team’s strategy is to wear out and wear down the opposition. That’s why we were going flat out on the Ventoux. Let’s see if in the next few days somebody pays a price for what we’ve done.”
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) July 7, 2021
Ineos Grenadiers’ game of attrition may have helped expose a crack in Pogačar’s armor Wednesday, but any fatigue the yellow jersey felt on the “Géant de Provence” will be long in the rear-view when the race reaches Andorra on Sunday.
If Ineos Grenadiers wants to put Carapaz back into contention and leave him time to spare in the penultimate stage time trial, it needs to find six minutes – something that will only come with repeated multi-minute gains.
Unlike Carapaz, podium contenders Vingegaard, Urán, and Wilco Kelderman won’t be afforded a limousine ride through the Pyrénées. However, they may not harbor the big ambitions of the Ecuadorian and his all-conquering grand tour squad.
Vingegaard looks to be the one rider with the explosivity to unsettle Pogačar after his blistering attack on the Ventoux. However, his Jumbo-Visma squad is tamping down expectations on the Tour rookie, and Vingegaard is similarly playing it cool.
“It depends on how my legs are feeling,” he replied when asked if he’d attack in the Pyrénées. “If I feel good, maybe I’ll do an attack, but otherwise I just want to follow and do my best.”
And lastly, let’s not forget Nairo Quintana and his hunt for the iconic polka dot jersey.
The Colombian veteran currently holds a slim lead in the KoM competition and is going all-in to bring the polka dots back to Paris. Expect to see “Nairoman” lighting up the breakaways and maybe even attempting to repeat his 2018 summit finish victory atop the Col du Portet on Wednesday in his bid to scoop the haul of mountain points he needs to fend off Michael Woods and Wout Poels.
Nairo on the attack, GC guys going all-in, Deceuninck-Quick-Step racing the cutoff … the Pyrénées will be this year’s kingmakers.