|The Tour arrives at Plateau de Beille, 2007.|
What's more, there are no less than five categorised climbs to be tackled on the way - and two of them are hefty Cat 1s, challenging ascents in their own right. Then there's a pair of Cat 2s, both reaching over 1000m and thus plenty high enough to get the lungs burning; and just before the final climb a respectable little Cat 3 in the form of Port de Lers, which is only 3.8km at 5.5% but, as it piggy-backs on Cat 1 Col d'Agnes, is still 1517m above sea level at its highest point, making it much harder than it would be if it started at sea level.
(Image by Christian Roucheux, used with thanks
and in accordance with the conditions set out here.)
The chateau near Saint-Lary is a very fine example of a real castle rather than a large house and the beautiful village should not be missed either. Orgibet is even better, but suffers somewhat from being so pretty that most of the houses have been bought by people from the cities and abroad, pricing locals out of the market. Orgibet is also the start of the intermediate sprint which ought to be an interesting one as it's twisty and not flat - also, since Cavendish and the majority of the sprint specialists are liable to be somewhere at the back after the Col de Portet-d'Aspet, it'll probably be left open for others to go for the points. 3.5km further on, Aucuzein has some interesting buildings including a Templar chapel and a ruined castle.
Soon, the parcours reaches the second climb, 1395m Cat 1 Col de la Core. It's not especially steep at 5.7%, but the full 14.1km will do a good job of tiring the less strong riders out which in turn will see that they suffer on the climbs to come. 13km from the summit is Seix with the ruined Chateau de Mirabat on one hill and the complete Chateau de Seix on another. It's also the location of the feeding station. From Seix, it's another 17.5km to the next climb, Cat 2 1110m Col de Latrape. The climb is only 5.6km but the gradient is 7.2%. Then, passing through Aulus-les-Bains on the way, it's just 15km to the Cat 1 Col d'Agnes which is 10km long, 1570m high and has a gradient of 8.2% - verging on Hors-Categorie and one of the most famous of the Cat 1 climbs. As if that's not bad enough, there's a secondary climb piggy-backing on the side: Port de Lers which carries the road back up to over 1500m again. It's worth pressing on though, because one over this one it's downhill all the way for the next 25km. Near Aulus-les-Bains is the famous Cascade d'Ars, a waterfall which is an hour's walk from the village and well within range for the helicopters.
The route then continues along the N20 via Sinsat - which really ought to be an "adult entertainment" TV channel rather than a tiny village - and then via a nice, straight-forward junction at Aulos along the D522 to Les Cabannes with two or three tricky corners and bends required to get onto the road southbound to the start of the 15.8km climb to Plateau de Beille. Once on the mountain, there are several switchbacks as the road gains altitude - these add a further challenge as although they reduce the average gradient, the small sections at the bends where the road moves up to the next section are much steeper.
|Plateau de Beille in the winter.|
Predictions: We were completely wrong yesterday - but then, so were a lot of people: hardly anyone at all thought that sprinter Thor Hushovd would win a stage like that one - so let's see what we can do today. Whether or not either of them win will have to remain to be seen, but the Schlecks are very obviously going to be gunning for this stage. Frank is a natural choice and if Andy can get over his Contador obsession he might just surprise the critics; assuming, that is, that we're correct in our suspicions that he hasn't lost the excellent form he was in last year. Then there's Contador himself, who certainly shouln't be written off just yet - never write off Contador - who is in seventh place overall and could take a lot of points today if he's feeling good and fortune is on his side. Cadel Evans is an all-rounder, which often means a rider does well on all stages but excels in none - but that doesn't apply to him. He's a strongman and though a little stockier than most of the purebred climbers he might do well here if he puts his mind to it. Don't forget Euskaltel-Euskadi who might fancy a last shot at glory before the Tour leaves their territory: Sammy Sanchez won a mountain stage two days ago and, buoyed up by that success, might feel lucky today.
Weather: It's looking rather pleasant for Saint-Gaudens this morning - there's likely to be a bit of light cloud about later in the morning, and while there's a 20% chnce of rain at some point today it's far more likely this afternoon once the Tour is gone. The wind is variable but very light, having little or no effect either way on the race, and the temperature ideal for cycling at 16C. There'll be no change after the first 20km when the race reaches the Razecueillé area, nor at Aucazein after 40km, but conditions at altitude can change rapidly so things might be different at Col de Portet-d'Aspet (26.5km) and Col de la Core (62.5km). The area around Seix will be much the same as the start, but the wind may have picked up a little though still not enough to affect the race. The same is true of Aulus-les-Bains (100km), Vicdessos (130km) and Sinsat (150km), but it could reach as high as 27C through these areas, making the race tougher. Once again, the weather may change rapidly on the mountain passes through this region. It looks set to be good on Plateau de Beille, temperatures around 21C and wind speeds of 14kmph shouldn't affect things too much.
DEVIL WATCH: Now you're asking - he could show his horned head just about anywhere today because the entire route is riddled with the climbs that are his preferred haunting grounds. We thought Col d'Aubisque would be the most likely spot in Stage 13 but saw nothing of him - however, with the mist and huge crowds, that doesn't mean he wasn't there somewhere. For Stage 14, somewhere on the steep slopes up to Plateau de Beille seem a good option and we'll be keeping a careful eye out for him there.