Tour de France enters final week with all to play for … and the Galibier looms | William Fotheringham

Fridays time trial from Marseilles Stade Vlodrome could prove crucial but two huge mountain stages before then may be pivotal for Chris Froome and co

Froome to watch, the remainder to assault

The gaps in the Tour are small but nothing has yet been assured on the scale of the four monster climbings that await on Wednesday and Thursday, all over 2,000 m in altitude and, in the case of the Croix de Fer and Galibier, of a duration we havent seen in the race so far. Chris Froome and his squad have only to watch the remainder, while grabbing what time they can close to the finish, because on paper the Briton is the strongest time triallist so can bank on gaining day on Saturday in Marseille. Thus, it falls to Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru, and Rigoberto Urn the strongest climbers in the race in so far to attack; Dan Martin and Simon Yates have not seemed quite at the level of the top four to date when the hammer goes down. Froome has the strongest team in the race, and he should have Mikel Landa to cover moves, so he is in the box seat. However

The unexpected and Landa lurking in the wings

Froome has had a remarkable number of minor episodes so far minor exits from the road on Sunday and at Peyragudes, mechanicals at Chambry and on Sunday, and his breakdown at Peyragudes. Something unexpected could devote his competitors an opening as long as they are willing and able to take the initiative. The other unknown concerns Landa, lying sixth overall and seeming disturbingly strong. If at some point on Wednesday or Thursday he gets into a potentially race-winning position most likely by marking a move by a rider outside Froomes immediate orbit as he did with Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador on Bastille Day that is when the race could get very interesting. The topic then is whether Sky rein him in or let him rend. And how Froome might react.

Desperation stations

The maths say it all: 10 teams have won stages, with Quickstep the biggest wins thanks to Marcel Kittel. Realistically, there are two stages that might fall to a breakaway without expert climbers Tuesdays stage into Romans-sur-Isre and Fridays to Salon de Provence although neither is nailed on. On those two stages there will be intense competition to get into the winning move, so the opportunities are the recent trend for large groups of escapees up front will be repeated. Movistar, BMC, Dimension Data, Lotto-Soudal, Bahrain-Merida, UAE and Lotto-Jumbo all have yet to win even if Lotto-Jumbo will hope that Primoz Roglic might deliver in Marseille. Even Lotto-Soudal know that with Kittel on his current form their sprinter Andr Greipel cant bank on winning, so they will probably be in the infringes as well.

The green jersey and polka-dot battles

In the fight to be best climber, Warren Wawa Barguil has a stranglehold, and knows that he has only to score highly in one of the two remaining major mountain stages Wednesday and Thursday to secure the polka-dot jersey. The intriguing battle is for green, where his team-mate Michael Matthews is challenging Kittel by exploiting his relative climbing strength to go for intermediate sprints and if possible the stage win on hillier stages. Tuesday appears propitious, with a hilly start, and here Matthews will look to get in a transgres, if possible with team-mates around him. Wednesday has a handy second cat climb immediately before the sprint. Thursday is less promising but Friday has enough climbings early on for Kittel to be under pressure again if Sunweb still have the leg. The German is favourite, because he has a good leading and the points system favours stage wins, but Matthews has good reason not to give up.

Warren
Warren Barguil should keep the polka dots all the way to Paris. Photograph: Chris Graythen/ Getty Images

A massive mob for what could be a cliff-hanger

Better known these days for soccer and rugby, Marseilles Stade Vlodrome will host the start and finish of the final hour trial, reverting to its original purpose as a home for bike racing, with a 67,000 strong mob expected to break the Tours attendance record for a single venue. Stadium finishes are rarely watched nowadays in cycling so this is relatively new. What will be on offer is the big question, because Wednesday and Thursdays climbs are uncharted water. The opportunities are that at least a couple of the top six will crack somewhere amongst those four climbs; nothing to date been shown that any of the top four will open a decisive gap. It could, and should, all still be to play for on Saturday.

An intriguing La Course

There are two ways of looking at the revamped La Course womens event, with a 67.5 km race finishing on the Izoard on Thursday, and a sort of day trial with a difference in Marseille on Saturday, where all those who finish within five minutes of Thursdays winner will start according to the time gaps they registered on the Izoard, with the first across the line winning effectively a handicap event, where the competitors can work together if they catch one another. The glass half empty position is that this is lip service to equality because the Izoard stage is relatively brief, while only a select few compete in Marseille.

The other way of looking at it is that moving to two days racing is a useful precedent and that the fact the organisers have a completely new event on their hands means they can experiment rather than merely aping the mens race. Baby steps and all that. In any case, it was time for a change from racing up and down the Champs lyses and this could be intriguing to watch. The big names are Marianne Vos, Katarzyna Niewadoma, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio and Lizzie Deignan. Olympic champion Anna Van der Breggen is not on the provisional start list.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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