19/06 - Stage 14 - Grenoble to Risoul - 177km

This is the Queen Stage of this year’s Tour de France. A big day in the Alps, which could easily turn the general classification upside-down.

The route
Starting out in Grenoble, the first couple of kilometers are uphill. Everybody knows this is a good day for a breakaway, meaning we will get to see another very fast start. The intermediate sprint is located in La Paute after 40 km. The fight for the green jersey is not really interesting anymore with Peter Sagan already having almost twice as many points as number two. After 48 km, the first big climb of the day begins. The following 34 km are uphill towards the top of Col du Lautaret. Its average gradient of 3.9 % may not sound like much but the distance alone will have many riders fighting for their lives already at this point.

Upon reaching the top of Col du Lautaret, the riders take on a 30 km long descent towards Briançon. This is where Col d'Izoard begins. With an average gradient of 6 % over 19 km, this is one of the most difficult climbs in the history of the Tour de France. The first 9 km aren’t very steep – hence the low average gradient – due a short descent after a couple of kilometers followed by a relatively easy part. However, the final 9 km are no joke. The gradients constantly stay between 7.5 and 9 %. A bad day on Col d'Izoard will crush any GC dreams you may have.

The finish
After another long descent of nearly 30 km, it’s time for the final struggle of the day. The 12.6 km up to Risoul have an average gradient of 6.9 %. It’s a very steady climb, favoring riders who are good at keeping a steady rhythm. The steepest part comes with about 2.5 km to go. From here, the following two kilometers kick up with 8.5 %. This is where Chris Froome accelerated in 2013, when stage 8 of Critérium du Dauphiné finished on this climb. Only Richie Porte was able to follow his teammate in yellow back then. The plan was for Porte to win the stage but on the final kilometer, the Tasmanian struggled to follow Froome’s high pace and Alessandro De Marchi pulled off an impressive solo win after a long breakaway.

The favorites
With 55 KOM points up for grabs today, naturally, the riders targeting the polka dot jersey will be eager to make it into the morning breakaway. After a difficult stage 13, the GC riders will probably wait until the final climb before attacking each other. This means that a strong breakaway will have a good chance of making it all the way.

My personal favorite is Joaquim 'Purito' Rodriguez. The KOM jersey is a big goal for Purito and today is a very important day for him. Compared to Friday’s stage, the early climbs are the most important ones concerning KOM points today. The first rider over the top of Col du Lautaret and Col d'Izoard will gain 35 points, while there are only 20 points to the stage winner. This means it’s very important to be a part of the morning breakaway. I think a break of strong riders will make it all the way and I would be surprised not to see Purito in it. Therefore, Purito is my top favorite for the stage. On stage 13, he took it easy on the final climb. He saw that he couldn't follow the top favorites and decided to save as much energy as possible for this big day in the Alps.

Amongst the GC riders, I think this climb suits Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde very well. Both are good at keeping a steady rhythm which is required in order to do well today. The heat favors Valverde who is getting better day by day and not afraid of attacking as we saw on Chamrousse. Furthermore, Valverde is very fast on the line, should this end in a sprint.

Hopefully, the GC riders will start attacking each other early on the final climb. Many are - more or less - at the same level now and it’s hard to predict who will come out on top. In Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Jean-Christophe Peraud, France has a unique chance of getting a rider on the final podium in Paris for the first time since 1997. Especially Thibaut Pinot is able to put in strong attacks on the climbs.

Leaving out Richie Porte as an overall contender, Tejay van Garderen is probably the best one of the podium candidates against the clock. However, he can’t afford to lose much more time. Today’s final climb suits Van Garderen very well. BMC is betting huge on the young American this year and now it’s time for him to deliver. So far, Bauke Mollema has been flying under the radar. He has shown to be very strong but we haven't seen him attacking yet. It will be interesting to see what he can do on Risoul.

The outsiders
Since I think the breakaway will make it today, let’s have a look at some of the riders most likely to be in it. Tinkoff-Saxo is gunning for stage wins after Alberto Contador left the race. Rafal Majka, Nicolas Roche and Michael Rogers all have what it takes to win this kind of stage. On paper, Rafal Majka is their best card to play. The young Poles says he’s been taking it easy, saving energy for the mountain stages. He proved this on stage 13, when he put in a strong attack and managed to stay with Nibali and König for a long time. If he gets into the winning break, he will be a very serious contender for this stage.

Michael Rogers too is in great shape now. In Dauphiné 2013, Rogers entered the stage to Risoul 3rd overall. Unfortunately, he had a very bad day, ending up losing almost two minutes despite Contador pacing him. I’m sure Rogers would have liked to pay back the favor to Contador this time, but now he has a chance of taking revenge on Risoul instead. Rogers is great at keeping a steady pace and despite what happened in 2013, this climb should suit him very well. The Australian veteran won on Monte Zoncolan in the Giro d’Italia this year, don’t be surprised if he takes another big win today.

Alessandro De Marchi won this stage in 2013 after a long breakaway and I wouldn’t put it beyond him to repeat the performance today. His fellow escapees will most likely be much stronger this time, but De Marchi himself has also proven to be very strong in this Tour de France. He has been the last help for Peter Sagan on the hilly stages and especially his performance on stage 12 was impressive. On the final climbs, Alessandro De Marchi kept the breakaway in a short leach all by himself. The Italian is obviously in great shape and he’s also one of the riders targeting the polka dot jersey, meaning he has to attack today. De Marchi spent most of the day in the break on stage 13 but if he’s serious about the KOM competition, he has to attack again today. It will be extremely difficult to beat the above-mentioned riders. However, as we have seen, nothing is impossible in this year’s Tour de France.

For other strong breakaway candidates look to: Fränk Schleck, Brice Feillu, Pierre Rolland, Haimar Zubeldia and Mikel Nieve who doesn't have to stay with Richie Porte anymore. Also, don't forget about Leopold König. He has proven to be just as strong as I expected. He's out of the GC but the Czech rider is still one of the strongest uphill. After his great performance on stage 13, he's also in play for the KOM jersey. Look out for König today!

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