23/07 - Stage 18 - Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne - 186.5 km

The route
The peloton is back in Gap to start this second hard stage in the Alps. It’s another good day for a break to make it all the way. Even though it’s uphill for the first 6.3 km with an average gradient of 7 %, we can expect a very fast start with attacks all over the road. The terrain is constantly up and down the first 85 km with no place to catch your breath. The climbs are not very long but they all have gradients over 7 %. It’s not until the riders reach the top of Col de la Morte, when they will be able to take a breather on the following 15 km long descent.

The intermediate sprint comes after a short but steep ascent in Rioupéroux. Soon after, it’s time for the feed zone before the peloton starts on the main struggle of the day. Col du Glandon is 21.7 km long. Its average gradient of 5.1 % may not sound like much but don’t be fooled. If you take out the two short descents and flat parts, the actual uphill gradient is more like 7 %. Furthermore, they are several parts of double digits gradients.

From the top of Col du Glandon, there are just over 40 km to go. Half of these are downhill on a very steep, narrow and technical descent. Luckily, the weather forecast predicts it should stay dry. However, those who are not good on the downhill sections will have a hard time no matter what. On the other hand, riders who thrive on technical descents will be able to open up a significant gap to their more cautious rivals.

As the riders come down from Glandon, it doesn’t take long before they start climbing again. Soon after crossing the water, they turn left on D778. From here, the following 3.4 km kick up with an average gradient of 8.2 %. The 18 hairpin corners towards the top of Lacets de Montvernier will have huge impact on the final outcome of the stage. To read more about this picturesque ascent, head over to INRNG by clicking here.

The descent ends with about 4 km to go. From here, it’s more or less flat for a time before the road slightly kicks up over the bridge on the last 2 km. This is followed by a downhill section before the riders pass under la flamme rouge. With 350 meters left to go, there is a sharp 90° corner. The last part of the stage is slightly uphill. In case a small group arrives together, it’s important to take the inner track when the road bends left on the last 100 meters.

The candidates
Since the GC riders don’t seem to fancy the stage wins at the moment, most likely a strong breakaway will make it again today. If so, we have to look to the usual suspects; riders who are strong uphill and have shown good legs in the last couple of days. At this point in the race, it’s all about who has something left in the tank.

MTN-Qhubeka seems to be gunning for the team classification. They have won the daily competition numerous times and now, they are just 16:57 minutes behind Movistar. We can be sure that the South African team will try to put a couple of riders in the breakaway again today. Recently, Serge Pauwels has looked very strong. Had he not punctured at the bottom of Col de Manse on stage 16, I think he would have tried to do what Ruben Plaza did. On stage 17, Pauwels joined the early break again, scoring a few KOM points as well. With 46 KOM points up for grabs, Pauwels could take the polka dot jersey at the end of the day with another strong performance. MTN-Qhubeka also have Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Teklahaimanot and Jacques Janse van Rensburg. Usually, Louis Meintjes would be a good pick too but he suffered severely on stage 17 - finishing alone and last - due to a stomach bug. The young South African only made the time cut by three minutes.  

Looking at the KOM competition, clearly Jakob Fuglsang and Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez are two very strong candidates today as well. Both are hoping to wear the polka dots in Paris. However, for that to happen, they need to start collecting points as soon as possible. Fuglsang and Purito tried several times to join the breaks on stage 17 but neither had any luck. With an uphill start today, I expect both of them to make the break. Purito is the punchiest rider of the two. Lacets de Montvernier suits him very well. I won’t be surprised to see him solo away on the steep slopes to win his third stage in this Tour.

My personal outsider pick for the win in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is Samuel Sanchez. BMC suffered a huge loss when Tejay van Garderen had to withdraw from the race. The American team has already had a great Tour with three stage wins. However, the moral can’t be very high at the moment. If anyone is to change this, it’s Sanchez. He’s been doing very well on climbs so far and he also managed to stay with top favorites for a long time on Col d’Allos on stage 17. The former Olympic champion is 13th overall but more than 17 minutes behind Chris Froome. Since the peloton allowed Mathias Frank to join the break yesterday, Sanchez should have a good chance to do the same today. Except from being a good climber, Sanchez is also fantastic on the downhill sections. On the long and technical descent from Glandon, few will be able to follow Sanchez if he really opens up. On the rest-day, he prolonged his contract with BMC. Today he has a golden opportunity to celebrate with a big win.

For other strong candidates look to Thibaut Pinot, Pierre Rolland, Bob Jungels, Romain Bardet, Jarlinson Pantano, Brice Feillu, Romain Sicard and Tony Gallopin. After a brilliant start, the French Lotto-Soudal leader had his GC ruined on stage 16. He woke up a bit sick and later, he crashed on the descent from Col de Manse. Now, Gallopin is no longer a threat in the GC and therefore, he may try to join an early break to end this Tour on a good note. If Gallopin isn’t ready yet, his teammate Lars Bak will be eager to step up to the task. The Dane is absolutely flying at the moment. He tried to get in the winning break numerous times on stage 17 but without luck. On Col de la Colle-Saint-Michel he even attacked out of a select group of favorites. Lotto-Soudal has had an amazing Tour so far, if everything goes right, it may get even better today.

In case the GC riders end up fighting for the win, Alejandro Valverde is the prime pick. He’s strong on the descents and amongst the best riders in the peloton on the short and steep climbs. Furthermore, he’s very fast on the line. If Valverde is in the group fighting for the stage win, I can’t see who should be able to outsprint him. Vincenzo Nibali may try an attack on the long descent but unless the break is within striking distance, Nibali’s main goal will be to move up in the GC rather than to gun for the win. For Chris Froome, the number one priority is to keep track of Nairo Quintana. So far, Froome has been outstanding. Even on the descents where many seemed to think that he would get in trouble. Without any incidents, I can’t see him lose this race. Alberto Contador may try another Hail-Mary attack on Glandon. However, since he’s now nearly 7 minutes down, Froome doesn’t have to respond right away. For Team Sky, it doesn’t really matter if Contador gains a minute today.  

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

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