11/07 - Stage 8 - Rennes - Mûr de Bretagne - 181.5 km

The route
On paper, this is another fairly tranquille day in the saddle for the riders. At least the first of the stage. This year’s Tour de France has been extremely hard. Tomorrow’s team time trial will require everybody to bring their A-game. Therefore, many will welcome a quiet day in sunny Bretagne.

After reaching the feed zone in Le Gouray, the terrains gets a bit hillier. The only KOM sprint of the day comes after nearly 100 km on the bike. Col du Mont Bel-Air is 1.5 km long and has an average gradient of 5.7 %. It offers a single KOM point to the first rider over the top. Less than 10 km after the climb, the intermediate sprint is located in Gare de Moncontour. For the riders targeting the green jersey, it’s important to notice that the last 2 km towards the line are uphill with an average gradient of 4 %.

Heading towards the conclusion of the stage, it’s constantly up and down on small hills. The run-in takes place on good roads but does include a couple of sharp corners on the last 5 km. The most important one comes just before the peloton passes under the 2-km-to-go banner. Since the road starts to kick up right after this 90° turn, we can expect to see a real sprint to make it first into the corner. Hopefully, everybody stays upright.

The first few hundred meters on Mur de Bretagne aren’t very steep. However, the following kilometer has an average gradient of 10 % and peaks at 15 %. Afterwards, the gradients start to drop towards the finishing line. The last 400 meters only kick up with about 2.5 %, meaning it’s not enough just to be good on the steep part. If a small group arrives together, like in 2011, you also need to pack a solid sprint in order to win this stage.

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The favorites
Today’s finish has Alejandro Valverde written all over it. He’s amongst the best riders in the peloton on the short steep ascents and few - if any - can match his speed in a sprint within a reduced group. Valverde has a very rare killer instinct. He always manages to find extra energy whenever he sees the finishing line. Movistar’s designated team leader is Nairo Quintana. When the peloton reaches the high mountains, Valverde knows he has to step in to a domestique role. If he wants to win a stage in this year’s Tour de France, he has to seize the opportunity when it presents itself. The Spanish champion missed out on Mur de Huy earlier this week. Now he has an excellent chance to make up for it and give his team a confidence boost ahead of the important team time trial on Sunday.

After his performance on Mur de Huy, Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez is naturally one of the top favorites for this stage as well. Nobody can accelerate on the steep ramps as Purito can. If he decides to attack early on the last climb, he will be able to do a lot of damage in the peloton. Purito is not slow in a semi-flat sprint, but he’s not as fast as Valverde either. Unless he’s having an extraordinary day on the bike, he probably has to distance his rivals on the steep part before the gradients drop, if he wants to double up on stage wins. To help set him up, Purito can count on great support from Giampaolo Caruso. The Italian veteran went so fast at the beginning of Mur de Huy that Purito had to tell him to slow down a little. In case something happens to Purito, Caruso also has a chance to do well today. He too is very strong on these kinds of climbs. Katusha could also decide to let Caruso attack early on the climb, forcing the other teams to chase. Then, Purito would be able to save a little energy, only having to attack if Caruso is brought back.

The last of the top favorites today is Dan Martin. Once again, the Irishman started on Mur de Huy too far back. He didn’t manage to move up until it was too late. Martin had to settle for fourth place but he proved to be in great shape. The finish today suits him perfectly. If Cannondale-Garmin manages to position Martin near the front as the climb starts, he will have a very good chance of giving his team a much needed win. Peter Sagan will most likely try his luck after positioning Alberto Contador near the front. The last part suits him very well but I think the steep part of the climb will prove to be too much for the Slovakian champion. Don’t count him out completely, though. If the GC riders don’t go too hard, Sagan should be able to hang on and sprint for the win.

The outsiders
The yellow jersey is back in the peloton today and it won’t be a huge surprise to see it cross the line first. Chris Froome did better than many would have expected on Mur de Huy. I doubt he will be the first to attack today but if Contador tries an attack as he did in 2011, Froome will be over him like hawk. Then, he could easily try a counter-move and power away to gain more time before the team time trial. Vincenzo Nibali needs to start taking back time soon but it will be very difficult for him to do it today. However, if there is just a moment of hesitation at the front when the climbs evens out, I’m sure Nibali won’t be late to take advantage of the situation.

One of my personal outsiders today is Tony Gallopin. The Frenchman had an amazing Tour de France last year. So far, nothing indicates that he won’t have a great race this year as well. He’s been very strong all season, winning one of the most memorable stages in Paris-Nice. On Mur de Huy, Gallopin was the only rider trying to follow Purito. At the end he had to let go of the punchy Spaniard but he still managed to finish 5th. Since the finish today isn’t as steep as on stage 3, Gallopin has much better chance of fighting for the win. He’s very fast on the line and obviously, he’s very strong on even the steepest gradients. Lotto-Soudal has already won two stages. Number three could very well come today.

Before the Tour de France started, Michael Matthews would have been one of my prime picks for this stage. The Australian went to check out Mur de Bretagne last month, after winning a stage in Tour de Suisse. It suits him very well but unfortunately, he’s still suffering from the big crash on stage 3. Most likely, it’s still too soon for Matthews. Orica GreenEdge has a strong outsider in Simon Yates, though. The young Brit finished 8th on Mur de Huy, proving to be in great shape. He’s already out of the general classification, meaning that the other GC riders won’t chase him down immediately if he tries something early on climb.

For other strong candidates who should be able to do well on this finish, look to Alexis Vuillermoz, Julien Simon, Greg van Avermaet, Julian Arredondo, Bryan Coquard, Jarlinson Pantano and the strong Etixx trio of Zdenek Stybar, Rigoberto Uran and especially Michal Kwiatkowski. When in peak condition, the world champion would be amongst the top favorites for this kind of stage. However, he needs to bring more to the table than he has shown so far in the race. In their home region, we can also expect the French wild card team Bretagne - Séché Environnement to try hard to animate the stage as much as possible. Their best chance today is probably Pierrick Fedrigo who used to be a specialist on these kinds of finishes.

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

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