12/06 - Stage 8 - Tomblaine to Gérardmer- 161 km

Many will say that the Tour de France begins today. After such a hard first week, it’s not really a fair statement, but today will be the first time we will see the top GC riders going head-to-head uphill.

The route
Contrary to Friday’s 234.5 km long stage, this is a relatively short day in the saddle. Starting out in Tomblaine, the first 135 km are flat. A tailwind will make for a very fast start with a lot of riders wanting to join the morning breakaway.

The break didn’t make it on stage 7 but today they will have a very good chance to succeed. Astana will be happy to let the yellow jersey go and save some energy for the high mountains later in the race. Without any top favorites today, there won’t be any teams with an interest in chasing the breakaway. It will probably take a while before the final break gets away, but when it does, we can expect it to gain a big gap quickly.

With about 25 km to go, the riders take on the first of three difficult climbs. Croix des Moinats is the longest climb of the Tour until now. Its 7.6 km have an average gradient of 6 %. However, as you can see on the detailed profile, the actual uphill sections are all above the indicated average. After a 5 km descent, the riders immediately start the next climb. In the road book, the 3 km towards the top of Col de Grosse Pierre are given an average gradient of 7.5 %. Don’t be fooled. The first km barely kicks up. In fact, this climb is more like 1.5 km of 12 % with a maximum gradient of 16 % near the top. A bit similar to the well-known Mur de Huy in Flèche Wallonne.

There are only 11 km to go from the top of Col de Grosse Pierre. The descent is divided into two with a short uphill section near the end. Soon after passing the 2-km-to-go-banner, the riders turn right onto Chemin de la Rayée. The following 1.8 km have an average gradient of 10.3 %. The maximum gradient of 13 % comes with just a few hundred meters to go. In the unlikely case that a group is still together at this point, this is where we will see the final attack for glory.

Tour de France 2014

The favorites
As already mentioned, the morning breakaway will have a good chance of making it all the way today. The finish is perfect for riders like Alejandro Valverde and Tom-Jelte Slagter. However, I doubt that Movistar or Garmin want to take control of the stage and work hard in the peloton. The Tour is still long and considering how the riders are crashing right now, it will be very important to have a fresh and strong team for the final week. Still, if this ends in a sprint between the GC riders, Alejandro Valverde will be very difficult to beat. The only one who can do it is probably Alberto Contador. He needs to start taking back time on Vincenzo Nibali as soon as possible. I expect Contador to attack in the final, no matter if a breakaway is up front or not.

On paper, this finish is tailor-made for Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. After crashing hard in Amstel Gold Race and in the Giro d’Italia, Purito came to the Tour without any GC ambitions. He’s been at the back of the peloton every day, taking it easy and waiting for the mountains. Personally, I don’t think Purito is ready to fight for the win yet. He probably needs another week before he reaches top condition. However, it would be foolish to count him out too early. Even though he was at the back of the peloton all day on stage 7 as well, he didn’t lose more than 1:26 minutes. The Spaniard seems to be in a good mood these days and in case the GC riders end up fighting for the win today, Purito might as well give it a go. He has nothing to lose!

Breakaway contenders
Given the fact that Astana isn’t very interested in keeping the jersey, let’s take a look at some of the most likely candidates for a morning breakaway. Michael Albasini did a big effort on stage 7, keeping a high pace on the final climb for Simon Gerrans. The Swiss is in excellent shape right now and he’s a true breakaway champion. When Albasini hits the morning breakaway, it often makes it all the way to the finishing line. The last two climbs today are very much like the Mur de Huy in Flèche Wallonne, which suits Michael Albasini perfectly. He finished 2nd in the race in 2012 and 7th this year. If Albasini makes it into the right breakaway, don’t bet against him.

Jan Bakelants is another very strong candidate today. After crashing a couple of times in the first week, the Belgian now feels better. He has most likely red circled these coming stages in his road book. Despite Mark Cavendish’s crash on stage 1, the moral at OPQS is be pretty good after Matteo Trentin’s impressive stage win. Last year, Jan Bakelants had a great Tour de France, winning stage 2 and finishing 18th overall. He was very aggressive on the climbs and always ready to attack. For OPQS the most important thing today is to make sure Michal Kwiatkowski doesn’t lose any time. However, since this is a great stage for a breakaway, you can be sure they will be eager to join the morning break as well. In case of a showdown between the GC riders, Kwiatkowski is good pick too.

For other interesting breakaway contenders look to Alessandro De Marchi, Rudy Molard, Blel Kadri, Brice Feillu and Europcar’s dangerous trio consisting of Pierre Rolland, Thomas Voeckler and Cyril Gautier. Not to forget my joker from Tour de Suisse, Sebastian Reichenbach. After IAM Cycling’s team leader, Mathias Frank, pulled out of the race, strong riders like Reichenbach is now getting a free role.

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