Where will yellow be decided? Mur de Huy

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Alejandro Valverde wins 150June 23rd, ’15.  It seems that race organisers of the Tour de France are continuing to break the mould on what a Tour route should be.  While for several years the route would follow a quite predictable format where GC contenders could more or less relax for the first few days, there has certainly been a shift now.  From start to finish everyone must be on high alert.  

Alejandro Valverde wins 320Alejandro Valverde has won Fleche Wallonne three times and is possibly the best versed at racing up this short – but oh so steep – climb, photo SirottiJune 23rd, ’15.  It seems that race organisers of the Tour de France are continuing to break the mould on what a Tour route should be.  While for several years the route would follow a quite predictable format where GC contenders could more or less relax for the first few days, there has certainly been a shift now.  From start to finish everyone must be on high alert.  

There are several crunch points along the route for this year’s Tour de France; and what has become clearer and clearer is that for GC contenders there is precious little margin for error anywhere.  The opening 13.8km time trial in Utrecht – the Netherlands – will be a matter of interest, but I think that with the course being as flat as it is the gains may not be extremely significant.  That is a risky statement as that fails to take into account technical elements of the course or the potential for mechanic issues or crashes; but that aside I actually think the first major crunch point lies in stage 3.

This year, for the first time in Tour de France history, the race will finish on the Mur de Huy.  It is the final climb at the end of a relatively short 159.5km stage from Anvers, and it comes at a point where riders have already gone over a rolling series of ascents; some categorised and some not.  For those who are not familiar with the Mur de Huy it is the finishing location of one of the biggest one-day races of the year, Fleche Wallonne; one of the ‘climbers’ classics’.

This year Alejandro Valverde raced to his third Fleche Wallonne crown in a dream spring that saw him double up with victory in the monument classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege just four days later.  He is indisputably the best of the GC contenders when it comes to riding up the wall.  The worst – just by looking at Fleche Wallonne alone – is actually Nairo Quintana, the 25 year old Columbian.  If they are both to line up at the Tour this year this climb may decide who assumes leadership in the team for the rest of the Tour; we shall see.

Chris Froome doesn’t have a much better track record.  In three visits to the Mur de Huy in the Fleche Wallonne he has finished in the top 100 just once – 34th in 2009 – but his form has certainly begun to show itself this year at possibly just the right time; after his two stage wins saw him take the Criterium du Dauphine crown for the second time a week and a half ago, although not without the occasional ropey moment!  Vincenzo Nibali has a reasonable history here, with his seven attempts yielding four top 20 finishes including 8th in 2012.  Alberto Contador’s best was a third in 2010, while Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez was a winner here in 2012, twice second and 4th this year.

Joaquim RodriguezJoaquim Rodriguez and the Katusha team will be ones to watch at the front of the bunch when the race reaches the foot of the Mur, being some of the best at positioning, photo Sirotti
The climb itself is short, just 1.3km but it’s the fact that it reaches 19% in gradient that should strike fear into anyone hoping for yellow by the end of the Tour.  To get over this first obstacle successfully the GC contenders will need to be well positioned on a road that becomes extremely narrow as it rises.  Movistar and Katusha have been amongst the best at doing this in recent years; so expect them to be up there with the best of them.

The time gaps might not be incredibly large, I would expect GC contenders struggling with form to lose anywhere between 15-30 seconds, but an all important psychological blow or two may be handed out here.  It will be a clear indication of whose climbing legs we should be expecting to be leading and whose should be following when the race reaches the Pyrenees in stage 10.

Aside from yellow this is just the sort of stage that one would anticipate Peter Sagan to stake a claim to the green jersey in.  His last three conquests that have led to the green jersey seem to have developed a little bit of a pattern, whereby he puts the green jersey out of reach by being the best climber of the sprinters and shaking off the pure sprinters – ie: Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel etc – on these category 3-4 climbs that are just a little too numerous for them.  Whether he will be free to go for green, however, is another matter; he may have to sacrifice his talent for the sake of Alberto Contador’s GC ambition.

EXPECT:

– first indicators of climbing form

– 15-30 second gap maximum between GC contenders

– Movistar & Katusha to display how to ride the Mur

By:  Ed Wright

 

 

 

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