23/06 - Stage 17 - Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary Pla d'Adet - 124.5 km

This is a big day in the Pyrenees. No less than four difficult climbs await the riders. We could easily see the general classification being turned upside-down today. Remember, you can see detailed profiles of all the climbs by holding your mouse over the areas on the stage profile.

The route
Starting out in Saint-Gaudens, the riders head south towards the Spanish boarder. The intermediate sprint is located in Saint-Béat, but this competition is already over. Peter Sagan just has to stay on his bike for the remaining five stages to get on the podium in Paris. After about 40 km, the riders enter Spain. The first 48 km of this stage are flat. Everybody knows this is a very important day for the riders targeting the KOM competition. Therefore, we may not see the final break getting clear until the peloton starts on Col du Portillon. This category 1 climb is 8.3 km and has an average gradient of 7.1 %. There are 10 KOM points to the first rider over the top.

From the top of Col du Portillon, it’s constantly up and down for the rest of the day. Heading back into France, the riders take on Col de Peyresourde. The 13.2 km towards the top are very steady with gradients around 7-8 %. We won’t get to see the GC riders attacking already, but they will definitely feel this climb in the legs later in the stage. Just like last year, the riders will start on Col de Val Louron-Azet (7.4 km at 8.3 %) immediately after coming down from Col de Peyresourde. This is a very difficult climb. When the average gradient surpasses the length of a category 1 climb in the Pyrenees, you know you’re in trouble. I doubt there will be many riders left in the front group on the top of Col de Val Louron-Azet. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a very short stage of only 124.5 km. This means the pace will be high at all time. With so many tough climbs, there will be no time for the riders to recover.

The finish
With a bit more than 10 km to go, it’s time for the final struggle of the day. Pla d’Adet is an HC-category climb, meaning there are 50 (25 x 2) KOM points to the winner of the stage. The first 7 km of the climb are the steepest ones with several parts of double-digit gradients and an average gradient of 9.5 %. In Espiaube, with 3 km to go, the climb evens out a bit with a kilometer of just 5 %. This is the only part of the climb, where the riders will be able to recover a little bit. After this, the road kicks up again with 7 % for the remaining 2 km before the final 200 meters are flat.

The favorites
Given his recent results, the number one favorite today must be Rafal Majka. He’s now leading the KOM competition, but he’s only one point ahead of Purito. Today’s four climbs offer a total of 80 KOM points with 50 of these to the winner of the stage. Therefore, we might not see Majka trying to make it into the early breakaway. He’s strong enough to fight for the stage win amongst the top GC riders. Rafal Majka became the first Polish stage winner in the Tour de France since Zenon Jaskuła in 1993. Interestingly enough, Jaskuła actually won his stage on today’s final climb Pla d’Adet. Majka is aiming big at the KOM competition. If he manages to repeat his compatriot’s performance today, he has a very good chance of ending up in the polka dot jersey in Paris next Sunday.

Tinkoff-Saxo’s tactic will depend much on what Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez decides to do. His current shape probably won’t let him beat Nibali and the other GC riders if he waits for the final climb. Therefore, the Spaniard needs to get up the road early on. If so - and if Majka stays in the peloton - Purito will most likely win the first three category 1 climbs, taking 30 KOM points. With Purito in the morning break, Tinkoff-Saxo will have to control the race, keeping Rafal Majka in play for the stage win. Luckily for Bjarne Riis’ team, they won’t be the only team interested in catching the break.

Thibaut Pinot proved to be in excellent shape when he dropped everybody on Port de Balès, even Vincenzo Nibali. Arnaud Démare hasn’t been able to give FDJ a stage win in the bunch sprints but Pinot may take one in the mountains. On La Plaches des Belles Filles, Pinot finished second. Since then his shape has only gotten better and better. Thibaut Pinot knows that he needs a solid gap to Jean-Christophe Peraud before the time trial. Right now he has a minute but this may not be enough. Therefore, he has to attack again today. Nibali has already won three stages in this Tour. If he’s the only one able to follow Pinot - and, by doing this, take more time on his other rivals - I don’t think he will mind Pinot winning the stage. Thibaut Pinot and some of his FDJ teammates went to check out this stage in May. They rode the last three climbs and know what to expect.

If Thibaut Pinot isn’t as strong as on stage 16, Vincenzo Nibali might as well go for the stage win. Many might diminish his (expected) overall win due the absence of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador in the mountains. For a proud Sicilian like Nibali, this is an attack on his honor. Therefore, I’m sure he wants to win this Tour de France being as superior as possible. For the future, there shall be no doubts about who the strongest rider in this race was. This also means winning both the yellow and the polka dot jersey, which not even Marco Pantani managed to do as the last Italian to win the Tour.

The outsiders
I doubt the morning breakaway will make it this time, but if it happens, look to riders like Alessandro De Marchi, Brice Feillu, Pierre Rolland and the Team Sky duo Geraint Thomas and Mikel Nieve. Maybe even Chris Horner. Without Rui Costa to support, the Lampre-Merida riders now have a carte blanche to attack. José Serpa did so on stage 16, finishing 4th. Horner says he’s in great shape now but that he’s also been suffering a bit with bronchitis, like Rui Costa. However, the heat should favor the American veteran who’s good at steep climbs like we have today. If Chris Horner makes it into the morning break, he won’t be easy to beat on the final ascent.

Another very interesting outsider today is Leopold König. Despite a bad start to the race, König is now 7th overall. The initial goal for Team NetApp-Endura was a spot in top15 and a stage win. Top15 shouldn’t be a problem now. Therefore, the focus should be on a stage win in the Pyrenees. Leopold König has proven to be very strong on the climbs. However, he probably can’t follow the likes of Nibali, Majka and Pinot if he waits until the final kilometers. I think he should do it like on Chamrousse, when he attacked from afar on the last climb. Right now he’s not a real threat to the podium, meaning the top GC riders don’t have to chase him down immediately. If the big favorites start to look at each other, I’m sure König will seize the chance and go for a big win on Pla d’Adet.

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