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Analysis: Tour’s hilly second week packs a punch

Don't sleep on the second week of the Tour de France, as hilly stages pack a painful punch through France's Massif Central.

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Sandwiched between this Tour de France’s opening stages, and the succession of huge Alpine tests in the final week, comes a series of hilly and punishing stages that have been largely overlooked in the pre-race hype. A closer look at the second week of this year’s Tour suggests it’s not time to switch the channel on your TV set just yet.

Sure, next week features sprint stages: Wednesday’s stage 11 provides a test for the pure sprinters before their main opponent becomes the broom wagon. Stage 10 on Monday features plenty of hills; it is perhaps one for Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) to resume the hostilities where they left off after stage 5.

Still, there are plenty of punchy stages that could test the GC men over the coming seven days. The roads through France’s Massif Central are infamously hilly and unforgiving. The constant undulations dish out fatigue that will undoubtedly sap their legs later in the race. And with that comes weaknesses that can be exploited.

With seven short sharp categorized climbs Saturday and a similarly grippy day on Sunday, there’s good opportunity for the likes of the breakaway kings of Wanty Group Goubert and Lotto-Soudal men Tim Wellens and Thomas De Gendt to make an escape go to the line. Behind them, in the GC group, the prospect of sniping and ambush await.

Several riders shed important seconds, or worse, minutes, on the 20 percent grades of the Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday, and will be looking for any chance they can find to start chipping into the deficit. Movistar’s pre-race contenders Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa sit nearly a minute behind Ineos pair Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) languishes nearly two minutes back.

The Massif Central marks dangerous territory for riders looking to protect a lead. Narrow, relentlessly rolling roads make it hard for even the deepest of teams to keep a lid on attacks, as evidenced by recent history. Chris Froome nearly lost his yellow jersey after Romain Bardet and Ag2r piled on the pressure in a scintillating stage through the region in 2017, and Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) took his chances on the roads to Mende to claw back time on Geraint Thomas in 2018.

Ag2r piled the pressure on yellow jersey Froome in the Massif Central in 2017. Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

The climbing depth of Movistar’s roster, and the local knowledge of Romain Bardet could make life difficult for the like of Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, the two teams who came out trumps in the first salvo of stages. After Bernal and Thomas were left isolated from their team for the majority of the critical climb of La Planche, predators may smell a weakness and be tempted to test them again through the Massif Central’s tricky territory. Bastille Day on Sunday may well see fireworks in the racing as well as in the day’s celebration of all-things-French.

After a tepid return to action on stage 11 after Tuesday’s rest day, the race for GC will start to pick up a pace again on stage 12. The peloton head toward the Pyrenees with a day back-ended by a pair of category 1 climbs before a descent to the finish; a profile that looks remarkably similar to the stage won last year by Julian Alaphilippe (Deceunick-Quick-Step).

The do-it-all Frenchman wasn’t on the GC radar before the race, but may have developed a taste for the yellow jersey after his two days in the maillot jaune. An aggressive rider like Alaphilippe, or the ever-dangerous Vincenzo Nibali, currently 1:56 off the yellow jersey, could easily spark GC upset with a late move on the day’s final climb before holding off a chase on the descent to Bagneres-de-Bigorre. Indeed, the Sicilian ‘shark’ is making such moves his trademark. He may have shown weakness on yesterday’s summit finish, but Nibali is never one to write off altogether. Remember the 2016 Giro d’Italia?

Alaphilippe won a stage similar to this year’s stage 12 in last year’s tour. He may have his eyes on a different color jersey this year however. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Of course, we can speculate all we want on the what-ifs and possibilities on the next stages, and the GC may stay largely unruffled until Pau. However, Christian Prudhomme’s route offers just enough heat to ensure that the boil in the GC action sparked on the gravel slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles at least holds a simmer through a series of stages that lead us to next Friday’s time trial showdown.

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