24/06 - Stage 18 - Pau to Hautacam - 145.5 km

This is the last mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France. There are only two big climbs on the menu but both are legendary in the history of the race.

The route
From the start in Pau, the riders head southeast until they reach the feed zone in Campan. Compared to the last part of the stage, the first 75 km are flat. However, they still include two category 3 climbs. Côte de Bénéjacq (2.6 km at 6.7 %) comes already after 25 km while Côte de Loucrup (2 km at 7 %) starts after 55 km on the bike.

With 67 km to go, the riders take on the feared Col du Tourmalet. The 17.1 km towards the top have an average gradient of 7.3 %. The first 6 km aren’t very steep (2-5 %), meaning that the average gradient of the remaining 11 km is around 8.5 %. It’s a very steady climb and if you’re having a bad day, you will lose a lot of time here.

Form the top of Col du Tourmalet, the riders will be able to take a breather on the 36 km long descent. Of course, if the French riders start attacking each other again on this downhill part, there will be no time to recover before the final big climb of this year’s Tour de France.

The finish
After reaching Ayros-Arbouix, the final 13.6 km of the stage are uphill towards the top of Hautacam. The average gradient is set to 7.8 % with numerous kilometers of double-digits gradients. Especially the last 6.5 km are steep. This part begins when the riders enter Saint-André. From here on, the following 5 km kick up with an average gradient of nearly 9 %.

The last time the Tour de France had a stage finish on Hautacam was in 2008 when Saunier-Duval made a fool of the peloton with Leonardo Piepoli and Juan José Cobo finishing first and second. The team was later kicked out of the race due to positive doping tests. In 2000, Lance Armstrong put in nearly 3:30 min on Jan Ullrich on this climb, while Bjarne Riis secured his yellow jersey after an amazing performance in 1996. Riis stayed in the big chainring when he won that day. Hopefully, we will finally get to see a clean rider winning on Hautacam this time! 

The Favorites
My personal favorite today is Vincenzo Nibali. He has proven to be in extraordinarily good shape and now it’s time to crown a great Tour de France on the last mountain stage of the race. Despite its dark past, Hautacam is an important climb in the history of the Tour. As I mentioned in my preview for stage 17, many might diminish Nibali’s (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. After taking three stage wins within the first 13 stages, Nibali hasn’t won in the Pyrenees. Today is the last day Astana has to work hard in the race. The start of the stage is much easier than yesterday. I think Astana will try to control the stage, setting up Vincenzo Nibali to attack and win - in the yellow jersey - to show everybody who’s the best rider in this year’s Tour de France. The weather forecast shows rain, which really favors Nibali who knows this climb very well. Personally, I would be surprised not to see him winning on Hautacam.

Lately, the only rider who’s been able to follow Vincenzo Nibali is Jean-Christophe Peraud. Due to his great time trial skills, Peraud is now a big favorite to make the overall podium in Paris. He’s only 8 seconds behind Thibaut Pinot and these will be no problem for Peraud to take in the time trial. Therefore, Thibaut Pinot has to attack on Hautacam. He’s much better against the clock than people think, but he’s not nearly as strong as Peraud. Pinot knows this and he will be desperate to gain time before Saturday. Arnold Jeannesson (who finished 14th overall in 2011) has found his legs just in time to be an invaluable help for Pinot on the climbs.

Romain Bardet is no longer in play for the podium. For Ag2r it’s all for Peraud now. Therefore, I think Bardet will put pressure on FDJ on the long descent from Tourmalet. Most likely, he will have a teammate in the breakaway waiting for him in order to pull on the descent. If Ag2r can make Pinot lose ground before the final ascent, it would be a big help for Peraud.

Another one we might see attacking on the descent is Alejandro Valverde. In 2008, Valverde got dropped on Col du Tourmalet and never managed to get back to the front before starting on Hautacam. He lost 5:52 min that day. The Spaniard will be eager to take revenge today. After his time loss on Pla d’Adet, Valverde is now 5:26 min behind Vincenzo Nibali. Just 34 seconds in front of Thibaut Pinot and 42 seconds in front of Jean-Christophe Peraud. Valverde sholdn’t have problems beating Pinot in the time trial, but he can’t expect to beat Peraud. Therefore, he has to make sure not to lose any additional time today.

The outsiders
This is another important day for the riders targeting the polka dot jersey. There are 75 KOM points up for grabs today. After his impressive stage win on Pla d’Adet, Rafal Majka is now 31 points in front of Vincenzo Nibali and 37 in front in Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. There are 50 KOM points to the winner of the stage, meaning that Majka doesn’t have to join the early breakaway today. Instead he can stay with the GC riders, having Tinkoff-Saxo helping out to control the pace. Despite his strong performances, Rafal Majka may not be able to follow Vincenzo Nibali on Hautacam. However, this is not necessary anymore. In case Nibali wins the stage, Majka just has to finish in top6 in order to keep the polka dot jersey. Still, don’t expect Purito to give up without a fight!

My personal joker today is Mikel Nieve. For a while, Team Sky finally seemed to get something to cheer for in this Tour when Vasil Kiryienka had distanced his rivals. Unfortunately, the strong Belarussian couldn’t keep up the pace and was caught on the top of the penultimate climb. In the peloton, Richie Porte lost contact too but Mikel Nieve fought hard to stay with the top GC riders. Antibiotics due to a small fever have kept Nieve from reaching his top level in this Tour de France. The Spanish climber is getting better day by day and this is his last time to shine. I don’t think Mikel Nieve will be able to follow the favorites when they start attacking on Hautacam. Therefore, he needs to attack from afar: either join the morning breakaway or attack at the bottom of Hautacam getting a good gap before the favorites take over.

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