16/07 - Stage 12 - Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille - 195 km

The route
This year’s Tour de France has already been extremely hard. Still, today’s stage may be the hardest one so far. Not only are the riders facing three difficult climbs before finishing on the merciless Plateau de Beille. They also have to overcome the nearly 200 km on the bike in very high temperatures. To make things even worse, we can expect another fast start as many riders will hope that a morning breakaway will make it all the way again.

The intermediate sprint is located in Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges already after 20 km. This means the break probably won’t get clear until after the sprinters have fought for the points. The first categorized climb starts after nearly 50 km. Col de Portet-d’Aspet is only 4.3 km long but has an average gradient of staggering 9.7 %. A very atypical Tour de France ascent. If the breakaway isn’t established already, it will most likely happen on the steep slopes towards the top.

About 20 km after the top of Col de Portet-d’Aspet, the riders take on Col de la Core. Its average gradient of 5.7 % may not sound like much but take away the first 5 km of 2-5 % and the average gradient of the last 9 km is nearly 7 %. The feed zone comes right after the descent, in Oust. 25 km later, it’s time for Port de Lers. The 12.9 km towards the top of this category 1 climb kick up with 6 %. The steepest part is at the middle with 3 km of 8.5 %. From the top, there are over 30 km until the riders face the final struggle of the day.

Plateau de Beille has only been on the Tour de France program as the final climb five times in the past. The first four winners on the climb also ended up winning the Tour overall. The only exception is one-season-wonder Jelle Vanendert who won here in 2011.

The ascent starts just 100 meters after the riders turn right getting off D522. While the last two climbs today had a gentle start, this one is very different. The gradients are steep right from the beginning. It will be like dropping a grenade in the peloton on the first few kilometers. In total, the 15.8 km towards the top have an average gradient of 7.8 %. Only the last 300 meters are flat. Twice we have seen a sprint finish on this climb. In 2004, Lance Armstrong outsprinted Ivan Basso and in 2007, Alberto Contador did the same to Michael Rasmussen. Below you can see the ascent of Plateau de Beille on Google Street View.

The favorites
Since the overall winner of the race usually wins on Plateau de Beille, the top favorite today has to be Chris Froome. On stage 10, he proved to be the best climber in the race - by far. He doesn’t have to attack and gain time again but Froome knows it will be of huge psychological value if he can drop his rivals once more. The way I see it, if Team Sky wants to win this stage, they will. Froome is simply the strongest rider on the climbs. If Richie Porte is as strong as he was on stage 10, Team Sky may green-light an attack from the Tasmanian if Froome feels good. Porte is wearing the polka dot jersey even though it belongs to his team leader. However, if he finishes better than Froome today, he could take over the lead in KOM competition. It may be too much to ask for but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had it in the back of his head.

The biggest threat to Team Sky today is probably the weather. The forecast shows it might start to rain on the last part of the stage. If the descents are wet, Movistar and others will be ready to take advantage of the situation. Alejandro Valverde is an excellent descender. The Spanish champion has no problems with the high temperatures and the rain doesn’t seem to bother him much either. It would be very interesting to see Valverde attacking on Port de Lers, trying to put Team Sky under pressure. Most likely, it won’t cause Froome any troubles but it may cut off a rider or two from Team Sky’s lethal uphill leadout train. If so, Nairo Quintana should attack early on Plateau de Beille, hoping to isolate Froome. The climb suits the Colombian very well. It will be extremely hard for him to drop Froome but as the cliché goes; if you don’t try you’ll never know.

Tejay van Garderen is still second overall before today’s stage. The steep gradients on Plateau de Beille are not exactly in his favor but on the other hand, if he can find a good rhythm, he should be able to minimize any additional time losses. According to the American, he’s more afraid of the descents than of the climbs. Should it rain, he might get in trouble on the on downhill sections. Luckily, in Samu Sanchez, he has one of the best descenders in the peloton to guide him down safely. In Dauphiné, Van Garderen was the only rider able to challenge Froome uphill. He didn’t have a great day on stage 10, but he didn’t go down completely like many others. This is a very important stage for the general classification. If Van Garderen wants to keep his podium dreams alive, he has to perform well today.

To me, Alberto Contador seemed a bit better on stage 11 than he did the day before. I don’t think he can drop the likes of Froome and Quintana on Plateau de Beille but if it rains, he may try to attack early on the stage. Maybe together with Valverde in joint Spanish taskforce to put Froome under pressure. It’s important to remember that Contador has nothing to lose. He has already won all three grand tours multiple times. For him, only completing The Double counts. It doesn’t matter if he finishes 2nd or 12th overall. Being four minutes down already, we can expect Contador to try something spectacular if he sees an opportunity. He always races to win and he never gives up.

The outsiders
With 75 KOM points up for grabs - 50 of these on the finishing line - the riders targeting the polka dot jersey will be eager to get into the morning breakaway. However, it requires a brilliant climber to finish it off and make it all the way. Personally, I doubt a break will make it this time. I think - and hope - that the GC riders are ready to put on a show.

If anybody is to make from a break, Pierre Rolland is probably the best pick. The French climber has been great the last two days in the Pyrenees. It looks very easy for him to stay with the top favorites. Despite his good performances, Rolland is still nearly 14 minutes behind Froome in the GC. Team Sky won’t have to waste any energy chasing after the Frenchman if he joins an early breakaway. As mentioned in yesterday’s preview, Europcar is still without a sponsor for next year. Rolland won’t have any problems finding a new team but many of his teammates aren’t that lucky. A stage win in the Tour de France, on the Queen Stage of the Pyrenees, would go a long way for the management to secure the team’s further existence in the peloton.

For other strong breakaway candidates look to Ryder Hesjedal, Tiago Machado, Adam Yates, Louis Meintjes, Dani Navarro, Jakob Fuglsang, Rafa Valls and the South African champion Jacques Janse van Rensburg who showed an impressive fighting spirit on stage 10, grinding his way back to the group of favorites again and again after being dropped.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.

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