The first summit finish of the race and the place for the next round of Tadej Pogačar vs Jonas Vingegaard, this time the hard climb at the finish should tell us plenty.
Jumbo, just: arch favourites to win the stage, Jumbo-Visma were just one second faster than EF Education-Easypost. It’s the second time the US team has lost out in a team time trial this season by one second after the UAE Tour; their consolation is that Magnus Cort took the overall lead.
Jumbo-Visma won but how much did they celebrate? They brought such a strong team to the point that there’s reduced help for the mountains to come and Vingegaard “only” got 23s on Pogačar yesterday, but a win is a win. UAE will be delighted with the result and thanks to earlier time bonuses Pogačar starts today just 11s down on Vingegaard. We should note the different styles: Jumbo-Visma could have finished à l’ancienne with four riders; UAE had Pogačar attack the final rise and crossed the line solo.
Both Jumbo and UAE have something in common: they’ll be pleased Magnus Cort’s in yellow as EF will help with the work today while Jayco-Al Ula and Groupama-FDJ will be purring with their times for Simon Yates and David Gaudu. Ineos were 48s down, not a result they’d have signed up for.
The organisers also had a win, there’s been a lot of discussion about the rule change and not only did it give more to talk about, it opens up possibilities for future team time trials. Imagine a hillier course where squads have to decide whether to deploy a heavy rider first and lose them mid-way and so on. Now teams always have to manage their effort, it’s just this “new” format means it happens in front of our eyes, it’s the striking visual aspect that makes it work on TV.
However there could be a wait. The first three stages of the 2024 Tour de France have been announced already and they finish at the foot of the Alps, how to put a team time trial with the crossing of the Alps? It’s possible. Also on the subject of the 2024 Tour, look out for details of the final Nice stages in the following days.
The Route: today’s stage has three parts. First 110km across the plains without too much going on but it’s still 110km to do and the weather forecast looks grim, it might not be defining, but it counts.
Second, after Vichy things get hillier. The climb of the Côte de Vernet is more than the stats suggest thanks to some steep sections, and after it keeps climbing after the KoM point on a smaller backroad before descending to the scenic Sichon valley. From here the road drags up to the Col de Beaulouis, one of those forever climbs that goes on for the best part of 22km, via the second KoM point and then at the top of the pass there’s the intermediate sprint (6s-4s-2s), it’s all on a wide road.
It’s almost worth to keep sprinting beyond this as there’s a brief descent and then a short climb before riding into the town of Laprugne. On the way out the road narrows and then it’s down a narrow descent before a tight turn for the final climb. There’s not much time or space to move up in order to be ready for the summit finish.
The Finish: the third and final part is the climb to the finish. You can have uphill finishes in the massif central that drag up without being too hard. But this is 6.7km long and the slope averages 7.1%, and that includes a brief downhill and flat section near the top so typically the slope is way more selective.
It’s got a steep start where it pays to be in position early but the slope slackens off a bit after. It often doesn’t feel like 8% except for a few hairpin bends where the gradient seems to pick up before and stay higher through the curve and after, these are the hardest parts of the climb. The blue section on the profile shows the slope easing but in reality the slope flattens off, there’s even a brief dip down and then an almost flat section across before it picks up again for the final kilometre.
The Contenders: a breakaway or Tadej Pogačar? The problem is that not many riders that far are down on GC today and among those that are, there are not many to pick from as a winner on this uphill finish if they get there in a group, especially when you subtract those on duty for their GC leaders. Still Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Dstny) comes to mind and longer shots are Stephen Williams (Israel-PremierTech) and Mikaël Cherel (Ag2r Citroën) who yearns for that first win after 17 seasons as a pro.
EF Education might tempted to pull so that Cort can do a miracle on the last climb and stay in the lead but if he was surprisingly good in the Volta ao Algarve, today’s climb has sustained sections at 8% while the Alto de Foia he won on is a gentle 5%, they have Neilson Powless who is more suited.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE) is in form, finds terrain to suit and seems to have restless legs syndrome since the start of this race. The time bonus on the line will tempt him further.
Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) can and has got the better of Pogačar in uphill finishes, the question is just how good his form is? Simon Yates (Jayco-Al Ula) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) are also outsiders, Yates is good at going clear and staying away while Gaudu is fast for the finish but their problem is how to get the jump on Pogačar and Vingegaard and they’re still GC contenders so won’t get room. It’ll be interesting to see how Mattias Skjelmose (Trek-Segafredo) does. Romain Bardet (DSM) is the local but that doesn’t make him any faster, he’s just handy for a climb like this. Finally Tour of Oman winner Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) thrived on the Jebel Al Akhdar climb, things slow on the flatter upper section and regroup, he’s got a good chance for the sprint if others mark each other.
|Yates, Gaudu, Martinez|
Weather: a strong chance of rain early on but the temperature’s warming up, 12°C and a 20km/h SW wind meaning a light crosswind for much of the stage.
TV: the stage starts at 12.30pm CET, TV coverage begins at 3.00pm CET and the finish is due around 4.40pm CET.
Thirsty work: today’s course passes through Vichy, a city famous for two things, first being the seat of the Vichy government during Nazi occupation but we can leave that. Also it’s a spa town known for its mineral waters. You can find many brands from this area, like Vichy Céléstins, loaded in bicarbonates it has a distinct taste. There’s also Saint-Yorre whose factory has a tap outside for passers-by to fill up bidons with water for free… only a sign in the window says it’s temporarily out of service and it turns out it’s been broken since 2017. There’s also Chateldon, marketed as a premium mineral water but it’s exclusive because supply is limited, the spring can only fill three million bottles a year; France’s Evian somehow manages that in half a day.
There’s been scandal recently as the OCLAESP health police raided the Chateldon plant in December 2020 after a whistle-blower claimed they were using additional CO2 to dope the size of the bubbles, allegedly while the label on the bottles claimed the bubbles were natural. OCLAESP? Yes, the same police agency that’s raided teams at the Tour de France and, as many a cycling fan knows, their raids generate headlines but any eventual convictions, if they ever happen, can take years.
One place OCLAESP don’t have to raid is the Charrier bottling plant on the side of today’s final climb, it is closed for good. It was said to be France’s purest and least mineralised water, as close to H2O as you can get out of the ground with few salts in it. The purity was also heightened by marketing claims that it was “full of life” thanks to dissolved radium which gave it “Super radioactivity”… a boast that probably wouldn’t work today.