22/06 - Stage 16 - Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon - 237.5 km

The Tour de France enters its third and final week with a tough day in the Pyrenees. Today’s climbs are known for big drama and a horrible accident.

The route
Starting out in Carcassonne, where the riders spent their rest day, the peloton heads west towards the Pyrenees. This is a great day for a breakaway to make it all the way and, despite a very strong headwind, we can expect a fast start. Don’t be surprised if it takes an hour before the final break gets clear.

With its 237.5 km, this is the longest stage of this year’s Tour de France. It’s another sunny day but, luckily, the temperatures won’t be as extreme as they were in the Alps. The first 150 km won’t trouble the riders much. When the break finally gets away, I would expect it to gain a big gap on the peloton on this long flat part.

The first serious climb of the day comes with a little less than 90 km to go. Col de Portet-d'Aspet is 5.4 km long and has an average gradient of 6.9 %. The ascent probably won’t make many headlines today. However, the downhill part definitely will. It was here that Fabio Casartelli crashed and died in 1995. From the top, there are 82.5 km to go and from here on, we will start to see who has the legs to win this stage.

The 6 km of 5.2 % towards the top of Col des Ares begins after 170 km on the bike and serves as an appetizer of what is to come next. So far, there have only been 9 KOM points up for grabs on the stage. Therefore, we might not see the riders targeting the polka dot jersey join the morning breakaway today. Stage 17 offers 80 KOM points, meaning it would make much more sense to save the legs for this big day in the Pyrenees instead. However, there are still 25 KOM points to the first rider over the top of Port de Balès. In case the peloton decides to keep the breakaway in a tight leash, we might see Purito and Majka attacking on this climb, fighting for the points.

The finish
Port de Balès is 11.7 km long and has an average gradient of 7.7 %. It starts out steep with the first 3 km near 9 %. From here, it evens out a bit with gradients of just 5 % before the road kicks up again with gradients of over 10 % for the next kilometer. This is followed by a part of 4 % before the gradients once again start to rise. For riders who aren’t good at changing rhythm, this irregular part of the climb won’t be easy. There is no place to hide on the final 6 km, which kick up with an average gradient of 8 %. This is where Andy Schleck dropped his chain after attacking Alberto Contador in 2010. Schleck lost 39 seconds that day, which was the exact margin that separated the two riders in Paris.

The descent down to the finishing town Bagnères-de-Luchon is fast but also includes numerous very technical parts. A strong descender will be able to take time on his rivals here. If you are in the front group, this is also a great place to attack if you don’t pack a fast sprint. Only the last 2 km are flat. In case a small group arrives together, it’s very important to be the first rider going into the last left-hand turn with less than 200 meters to go.

The candidates
With Wednesday’s stage 17 in the back of their minds, I think the GC riders will be happy to get a quiet day in the peloton today. This is a very long day on the bike and it’s important not to waste any energy. Therefore, I will give the morning breakaway a good chance of succeeding. As mentioned, the riders targeting the KOM competition will probably wait for stage 17 to attack, so we can probably forget about riders like Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, Rafal Majka and Alessandro De Marchi for now. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the riders whom this stage suits perfectly.

First up is Thomas Voeckler. The final 90 km of the stage are the same as in 2010 where Voeckler won after a long breakaway. I’m certain the French animateur has this stage marked in his road book. Voeckler is not strong enough to drop the pure climbers uphill but on the other hand, he’s not easy to drop either. He’s persistent like only few others and there aren’t many riders in the peloton better at descending than him. If Thomas Voeckler can manage to stay near the front on Port de Balès, I think he will repeat his brilliant performance from 2010.

Another very strong candidate today is Michael Rogers. After Alberto Contador’s exit, Tinkoff-Saxo is now focusing on stage wins. Rafal Majka took a beautiful win on stage 15 and the moral at the team is good again. Rogers won two stages in the Giro d’Italia this year. One after attacking on the final descent and one on the feared Monte Zoncolan. Clearly, the Australian veteran masters both aspects, which are very important today. Michael Rogers is in great shape now and, without being a threat in the general classification, the GC riders won’t mind him making it into the morning breakaway. Few will be able to drop Rogers uphill. He might even be the one attacking his fellow escapees. If so, he only needs a few seconds gap on the top of Port de Balès to make it all the way to the line.

For other strong riders who are also good on the descents, look to Giovanni Visconti, Michael Kwiatkowski, Geraint Thomas and Yuri Trofimov. Not to forget Peter Sagan who is still gunning for his first stage win after finishing in top5 nine times so far. If the GC riders end up fighting for the win, Alejandro Valverde will be the man to beat.

Personally, I would also like to see Rui Costa try something today. The World Champion lost nearly five minutes on Risoul and he’s now 12:57 minutes behind Vincenzo Nibali in the general classification. Rui Costa has been suffering from bronchitis and pain in his leg, which has kept him from performing as well as he had expected. Thanks to his strong time trial, top10 is still within his reach. However, unless he makes it into one of the early breakaways, he won’t be able to win a stage this year. Top10 overall would be a good result for the Portuguese rider but it won’t be something people will remember. A stage win in the Tour de France, wearing the rainbow jersey, on the other hand, will. This would make headlines worldwide. Rui Costa has finished 2nd or 3rd no less than seven times this season. Only once has he crossed the line first. Today’s finish suits him very well. If he manages to be a part of the morning break, he will be extremely difficult to beat.

Update: Rui Costa won't take the start today. On the rest day, an x-ray showed an outbreak of broncopneumonia, which forced the team doctors to take the decision for the world champion not to continue in the race.

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