18/07 - Stage 14 - Rodez to Mende - 178.5 km

The route
From the start in Rodez, where the stage finished yesterday, the riders take on 45 km of hilly terrain. Only one of the climbs has been categorized by the organizers but it doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous ascents to overcome on this first part of the stage. Despite a headwind, we can expect another very fast start with many attempts to break away.

After a descent of nearly 15 km, the terrain changes completely. The following 80 km are mostly flat. A tailwind will now accompany the riders for the majority of the remaining part of the stage. The intermediate sprint is located in Millau with 100 km to go. Knowing that their won’t get a chance to fight for the stage win today, the riders targeting the green jersey will be eager to score as many points as possible.

With about 50 km left to ride, the terrain changes again. In Sainte-Énimie, the riders now start to climb towards the top of the 9 km long Côte de Sauveterre. With an average gradient of 6 %, this ascent will help open up the legs before the very demanding final.

The penultimate climb of the day starts with 11 km to go. Côte de Chabrits is 1.9 km long and has an average gradient of 5.9 %. The steepest part is around the hairpin corner halfway to the top. The following descent is very fast, almost without any corners. However, there are a couple of roundabouts to overcome. The weather forecast predicts it will be raining at this point. If the surface is wet, the riders will have to be very careful when they tackle these roundabouts in high speed.

As the peloton approaches the center of Mende, the road starts to kick up. It does take about a kilometer before the official ascent begins, though. The 3 km towards the top of Côte de la Croix Neuve have an average gradient of over 10 %. There are no easy parts on these steep slopes. Only the best climbers and puncheurs in the peloton will be able to make a difference. From the top, there are just 1.5 km to go. It starts out slightly downhill before the riders reach the airfield runway for the final flat stretch of 500 meters towards the finishing line. Due to the expected tailwind, even a small gap on the top might be enough to keep any chasers at bay.

The favorites
On paper, the top favorite today is Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. He won on this climb back in 2010 when he attacked from the peloton with 2 km to go and later outsprinted Alberto Contador on the airstrip. Purito took a beautiful win on Plateau de Beille the other day. On stage 13, he seemed to take it easy and let go of the peloton on the final part. Most likely, he was trying to save as much energy as possible for today. Côte de la Croix Neuve suits the Spaniard perfectly. A short and steep ascent like this is exactly where Purito excels. Of course, in order for Purito to have a go at the end, the peloton needs to catch the inevitable early breakaway. The Katusha riders are in for a long and hard day in the saddle, trying to control the stage. They will hope that other teams will join the chase.

One of these teams could be Movistar. In Alejandro Valverde, they have one of the only riders able to beat Purito on a finish like this. Had Movistar taken control of the last two stages in the Pyrenees, I think Valverde would have won both of them. Instead, the team is winless in this year’s Tour de France. Nairo Quintana still hopes to beat Chris Froome overall but it will be extremely difficult. Today may be one of Movistar’s best chances to win a stage in the race. In the past, we have seen Froome suffering in the rain. Valverde is an excellent descender. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him attack on the slippery downhill section in order to put Team Sky and Froome under pressure. It may cost him the chance to win the stage, but if he gets caught, Quintana should be ready to counter-attack.

Alberto Contador is another rider who will welcome the rain. If it’s true that he has been suffering from allergies in the heat, he should be better off today. In peak condition, Contador will have no problems following the best riders on the last climb. However, he doesn’t seem to be on top of his game now. Luckily, that usually doesn’t keep him from attacking. Contador always races to win. He has good memories from Mende and I’m sure he will try something if he sees an opening.

The same goes for Chris Froome. If he feels that his rivals are on their limits, he should try to make a move like he did on Plateau de Beille. Just to see if he can shake off one of two them. You may not think that a short and steep climb favors Froome but don’t forget how he won his first Tour de France stage in 2012, when he attacked on the last steep kick towards the line on La Planche Des Belles Filles. He also did extremely well on Mur de Huy earlier in this race, finishing second behind Purito. With the help of the tailwind, Froome could easily power away over the top of Côte de la Croix Neuve winning another stage in the yellow jersey.

The outsiders
After his outstanding performances on stage 3 and stage 8, Alexis Vuillermoz is definitely a rider to watch today. The punchy Frenchman seems to be better than ever at the moment. He waited too long on Mur de Huy and had to settle for 3rd place. On Mur de Bretagne, he was very eager not to make the same mistake as he attacked early and soloed away to win. Vuillermoz has done well in the Pyrenees. I would be surprised if this isn’t a stage he has marked in the road book. It’s also worth noting that Vuillermoz has won in Mende before. Last year, he won stage 2 of Tour du Gévaudan Languedoc-Roussillon. They didn’t finish on Côte de la Croix Neuve back then, but they did cover it twice before the final. That day, Vuillermoz outsprinted Thibaut Pinot on the line.

The Astana team is probably very interested in this stage too. In 2010, Alexander Vinokourov seemed sure to win here. However, due to the hard acceleration from his teammate Contador, Vinokourov was caught just before the top and finished 3rd. I’m sure he would love to take revenge and win this stage with his team this time. The problem is that Astana doesn’t have any punchy riders to count on. Jakob Fuglsang may try to join the break again but the finish doesn’t really suit him. Neither does the climb fit Vincenzo Nibali’s characteristics. Astana’s best choice is probably Lieuwe Westra. Against all odds, the Dutchman left everybody behind on this climb back in 2012 when he won stage 5 of Paris-Nice, six seconds ahead of Valverde. Westra hasn’t shown the same strength since then but he will definitely be eager to try to repeat the extraordinary performance today. A side note from that day is that Tejay Van Garderen suffered a lot on the steep gradients and ended up dropping from 3rd to 12th overall. The American looks much stronger now, but he may get in trouble if the punchy riders start attacking early on the climb.

In case an early break makes it all the way after all, look to punchy riders like Adam Yates, Dan Martin, Jan Bakelants, Tim Wellens, Julian Arredondo and Thomas Voeckler.

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

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