19/07 - Stage 15 - Mende to Valence - 183 km

The route
The peloton starts climbing right from the beginning in Mende. The profile lists Côte de Badaroux as just 4.6 km long but in reality, the first 18.5 km are uphill. Due to a tailwind, the pace will be high as many riders want to make it into the right breakaway.

From the top, a part of 50 km follows before it’s time for the next categorized climbs; Col du Buz and Col de la Croix de Bauzon. After a long descent of over 30 km, the riders reach the intermediate sprint in Aubenas. Andre Greipel crashed and had problems staying with the peloton on the hilly start of stage 14. He may get in trouble again today. If so, Peter Sagan will be able to take advantage of the situation and increase his lead in the points classification. Even if Greipel manages to contest in the sprint, it won’t be easy for him to outsprint Sagan as the last kilometer kicks up with nearly 5 %.

Upon reaching the feed zone in Pont d’Ucel, the riders start to climb again. After 6 km of 2-3 %, the official ascent of Col de l'Escrinet begins. The 7.8 km towards the top have an average gradient of 5.8 % with the steepest part coming at the beginning of the ascent. This is the last chance to drop the pure sprinters, if they are still in the peloton at this point.

Luckily for the sprinters, there are still over 55 km to go from the top of Col de l'Escrinet. After a long descent of 20 km, the last 35 km are flat. The weather forecast shows a good chance of rain. This and a light headwind will be the main struggle for the peloton on the last part of the stage.

Heading into Valence, the riders will have to tackle a few roundabouts before the road starts to kick up with 4 km to go. The following 400 meters have an average gradient of 4.5 %. If a breakaway is still in front at this point, we might see a few attacks on this hill. Just before passing the 3-km-to-go banner, the riders turn left in a sharp corner. From here, a long straight-out part awaits them before they turn right in yet another roundabout with just 400 meters left to go. This will stretch out the peloton significantly. You need to be in a perfect position at this point if you want to win this stage.

The favorites
Looking in the road book, this is surely the last chance for the sprinters before Paris. However, due to the undulating profile, it won’t be easy for them to fight for the win. Most likely, the parcours will prove to be too hard for the pure sprinters but a rider like Peter Sagan should be able to stay in contention. The Slovakian is now 61 points ahead of Andre Greipel in the points classification. If he can increase his lead even more today, much will have to go wrong for him not to wear the jersey on the podium in Paris. I doubt Sagan will join the morning breakaway as he did yesterday, though. There should be too many teams willing to control the stage for a break to make it all the way. The next days in the Alps are very important for Tinkoff-Saxo but since Alberto Contador can’t follow the best riders uphill, the team should try to make this end in a sprint. Sagan is not the fastest rider in peloton but if he can turn his frustration into motivation and power, he may finally cross the line first.

The same goes for John Degenkolb. The strong German is still gunning for his first ever Tour de France stage win. He’s been close on numerous occasions and now he hopes to finally break the spell. On stage 13, Giant-Alpecin proved they are not afraid of committing to the chase early on. Unfortunately for Degenkolb, the last hill was too steep for him. Today’s finish however, should suit him very well. If he can enter the last roundabout with one of two teammates ahead of him, he will be very difficult to beat.

Alexander Kristoff has had a very anonymous Tour de France. After winning two stages last year and having a fantastic spring season this year, the expectations for the big Norwegian were very big. So far, he hasn’t been able to deliver yet but it may change. Kristoff usually gets better as the race goes on. Katusha managed to set him up perfectly on stage 13, but like Degenkolb, Kristoff also found the last climb too steep to contest for the win. Katusha won’t back down though. Today, they are ready to give it another go. They decided not to work for Joaquim Rodriguez on stage 14 in order to save energy for today. We can expect the Russian team to work hard to bring Kristoff in a position to fight for the win in Valence.

The outsiders
The first two weeks of the Tour have been extremely hard. This late in the race, we could easily get a surprise winner today. Maybe the early break makes it all the way or maybe a fast rider like Edvald Boasson Hagen ends up outsprinting the top names. MTN-Qhubeka made history when Steven Cummings - on Mandela Day - won stage 15. Their morale must be sky high at the moment. Most likely, they will try to put a rider in the break to repeat the performance. If it doesn’t happen, they should join the other teams in the chase. Boasson Hagen tried to take up the fight on stage 13, but he too had to capitulate on the steep hill. The Norwegian has won stages at this point in the Tour before. The way I see it, this stage suits him perfectly. If he comes out of the last roundabout in a good position, he could make it two in a row for his South African team.

For other fast riders who should be able to survive the climbs and contest in the sprint, look to Greg van Avermaet, Julien Simon, Arnaud Démare and of course Michael Matthews. The fact that the Australian is still in the race, after his crash on stage 3, is already impressive. He tried to get in the mix on the steep hill on stage 13 but it proved to be too early for him. However, Matthews got to test the legs and feel the adrenaline. Now, he’s ready to give it another go. It won’t be easy but it would be a huge mistake to underestimate him.

In case a breakaway makes it after all, look to strong and opportunistic riders like Ramunas Navardauskas, Lars Bak, Sylvain Chavanel, Bartosz Huzarski, Tim Wellens and Michal Kwiatkowski. The world champion may be Etixx-Quickstep’s best card to play if Mark Cavendish can’t make it over the climbs in the front group. If Cavendish is there at the end however, he’s clearly the man to beat.

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

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