Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 16 Preview

LATEST: A Tour official was found dead in a river near the finish line at Gap early this morning. An investigation has begun.

Following a much-needed rest day - involving such relaxing activities as transporting teams, bikes and the tons of equipment carried about France during the Tour over the 125km from Montpellier to Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, no mean feat in itself - Stage 16 is aimed straight into the heart of the French Alps, considered by many riders and spectators to be the highlight of a Tour and the most likely location for the eventual victor to reveal himself. The parcours is highly representative of the next few days - starting at 99m above sea level, it begins to head skywards right from the start line and then continues to do, climbing all the way until it reaches the 1268m Col de Manse before plunging 524m in 11.5km to the finish at Gap. For those of us who take an interest in the sights and locations along the route of the Tour, this stage is of as much interest for its geology as its history and takes in a number of interesting features.

Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux, on the edge of the beautiful department of Drôme, is home to around 8200 people and acts as a stage town for the very first time today. Like the majority of towns in the region, recorded history begins with the Romans who named it Augusta Tricastrinorum, a Latinised version of Tricastin which was the name the Gallic tribes living here before the Romans arrived used. Saint-Paul was added at some point in the 4th Century and, later, Tricastinorum was mistranslated as "three castles," thus giving rise to the modern name. and the town's heraldic emblem featuring three castellated towers and a crown. The town was fortified in ancient times and remnants of the Roman walls can still be seen at some sites around the medieval town centre, which is clear on maps as a roughly circular shaped area inlcuding the catehdral, Notre-Dame de Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux which is today considered one of the finest examples of Provençal Romanesque architecture and is of particular interest to archaeologists for the large number of mason's marks still visible on its stonework. To the south is a small mountain rising to around 270m and offering excellent views of the region including towards the south-east-east and - or so I'm informed - cycling's holiest mountain Mont Ventoux.

Chances are that the stage will see an early breakaway, as has every stage thus far this year, but the first few attempts are probably prone to fail when inexperienced riders underestimate gradient leaving the start town and can't keep ahead while the peloton gathers momentum. Sooner or later, the gene pool will have been reduced, leaving only the more experienced super-domestiques attacking the peloton; at which point a breakaway has a chance of success - we'd expect it to build up a small gap and maintain it for a good part of the course today, at least until the halfway point. Their target will once again be the intermediate sprint, but since that doesn't come until three quarters of the way to Gap and it's uphill all the way, whether or not they can get there first is debatable. Since the stage follows a rest day, we think they probably will.

Château de Suze-la-Rousse
Leaving Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, the D59 passes between more forested ridges as it heads south-east for 8km to Suze-la-Rousse. Standing on an outcrop at the north-western corner of the town is the remarkable château which, much modernised in the 16th Century, perfectly combines the aesthetic qualities of a medieval fortress with those of a fine Renaissance stately home. It now houses a university of wine and viticulture. Immediately to the west is the castle's park, known as La Garenne, which contains a 16th Century real tennis court and Neolithic remains, evidence of a local culture predating the castle by thousands of years. The view from here to Mont Ventoux is famous.

The road into Suze-la-Rousse isn't technical as it emerges from a plane-lined avenue and across a bridge, offering one of the best views of the chateau, but the negotiates a roundabout. Shortly after this, riders will cross the road before turning left onto the D94 which is straight and flat. Looking back - which the riders won't - this road provides a good opportunity to comprehend the sheer scale of the chateau just passed; while looking forward it's possible to try to comprehend the even more impressive scale of Ventoux, which looms above the horizon like the malevolent presence that it is - this the riders will do, and be thankful that they don't have to climb it this year. The road sweeps north-east via a simple junction and, 16km from the start, reaches Tulette. The road continues through the middle of the town, straight at first before a couple of right-hand bends that are sharp enough to cause problems if conditions are wet. It then heads east, where it's called the Avenue des Alpes, and past the enormous bottling plant (not far off 400m wide!) which has made Tulette wealthy. Having crossed another roundabout it enters Saint-Maurice-sur-Eygues, an important centre of wine making. Just to the south is the Drôme river - its course is wide as it splits into a number of rivulets flowing through the gorges cut into the rocks. Another large roundabout takes us out of town and onto another plane-lined avenue - still the D94 - north-east past the le Sagittaire leisure park.

34km from the start is a large junction leading south onto a bridge across the river, then onto the D539 which passes the large town of Nyons and follows the line of a ridge of hills past vineyards and woodland. Although the parcours doesn't pass through Nyons, it should be possible to see the 13th Century Tour Randonne, which is topped with an unusual tiered detail with a statue of Mary: the tower is believed to have originally been defensive - it certainly looks like it - but it was purchased in 1862 by a local pastor and converted into a chapel, this being the purpose it still serves. As we approach the eastern end of the town where ridges face on another across the river is the Pont Roman, a graceful single-arch bridge, still in use after a little over six centuries.

The road then becomes the D94 again and continues north-east, crossing the river before skirting Les Clots and following the banks to Aubres and its ruined castle, then makes a large inverted U  and travels east once more to Les Pilles which marks 42.5km travelled. Les Pilles is named after two rocks said to resemble pyramids. The road turns north, following a narrow strip of land between the ridge and the river, then north-east and after 8.5km reaches Sahune, the entry to the Gorges of Saint May, an area of great natural beauty, and the route twists around in all directions for the next 20km to follow their course.

Verclause is located 71km from the start, meaning that there are a further 91.5 to the finish line. A picturesque ruined tower, all that's left of the castle, stands on the rocks high above and a sort time after the peloton passes through the village the road becomes the D994, marking the point where they officially enter the Haute Alpes; the hills to the north becoming noticeably craggier as though to prove the point. As it approaches the village of Rosans (76km), the gradient becomes much steeper and soon reaches over 750m above sea level.

At a flatter section is Moydans, the location of the feeding station and the halfway point. This tiny village is home to just 50 people, so it's entirely possible that the entire population will be waiting on the short main street to see the Tour pass through. Soon, the terrain starts to rise again and by the time the riders pass south of Ribeyret they'll be around 820m up. After another 4.5km, they reach L'Épine in the Buëch Valley where an abbey building atop a small rise north of the village gives the impression of a miniature Glastonbury Tour, passing just to the south of the village. Montclus, at 81km, has the same population as  Moydans but packs them into a smaller physical area sandwiched between higher ground to the north and south. In the centre of the village is a ruined tower dating from the 11th Century and built to provide a look-out point so the locals could prepare for imminent raids by the bandits that in those days infested the area. In 1994, several houses in the village were damaged by a landslide. Just to the east of the village is a small but very beautiful waterfall which plunges down the cliff and through a culvert under to road, the a sort distance further on a sharp left then right-hand corner as the parcours travels over a bridge to the opposite side of the narrow valley.

3km from Montclus is Serres (left), apparently one of just five French towns with names that are palindromes (oh alright, that's not really relevant - but you never know when knowledge of this type might prove useful). Serres can guarantee a good turn-out of spectators because visitors to the Serres Jazz Festival, currently in full swing, will be looking for something to do during a one-day break from the party. If you happen to be in the area, you can see a programme by clicking this link and Klezmer Kaos (whom I've seen a couple of times) have the Cyclopunk Seal of Approval.

The road through Serres is straight and reasonably wide with no hazards other than a roundabout, which shouldn't cause problems, as it joins the D1075 clinging to the cliff alongside the river and heads out of town towards the north, crossing the river opposite a imposing 350m cliff. Soon, the route comes to a large roundabout by an airfield where it rejoins the D994 and heads north-east, passing by yet more gorges. It follows alongside a railway, soon reaching a large station at Veynes where the peloton will have to tackle two roundabouts in quick sucession. Veynes was a small and quiet town until the railway came, but has since become a centre for the development of solar energy. Until the 14th Century, it was home to a Jewish community of whom many worked in local tanneries (Jews in Medieval Europe were banned from working in many industries and had to find jobs in those that other people found distasteful - tanneries not being the most pleasant places in which to work). Sadly, they were exterminated during violent attacks that we would nowadays term pogroms after they were blamed for causing the plague - a common flaspoint for antisemitism at the time.

Today, Veynes is home to the intermediate sprint - organisers have found  quite a challenging stretch of road featuring a first roundabout and right-hand corner towards the end of the first thousand metres, another roundabout immediately after entering the second thousand metres and series of traffic calming devices for good measure, along with an upwards kick of about 24m towards the end. What happens here depends entirely on whether or not a breakaway has formed and if it's still going by this point - if it is, the top points will go to whoever is the fastest: Delaplace, Delage, perhaps Zandio or Uran are likely lead group members and would all be likely winners of the 20 points. If not, expect any of the fast sprinters who isn't too tired from getting here.

La Roche-des-Arnauds
A little way out of town the road turns dead east and enters a long and straight section, passing La Plaine before reaching La Roche-des-Arnauds where, in the middle of the town, it turns sharply right and heads off in another straight line to the south east. The road in and out has central reservations, but is at no point narrow enough to cause problems and, being so straight, will have no effect on riders' times no matter which way they go around them. At Saint-Andre, Berne and La Selle is a twisty section of road which connects the three hamlets in a long loop and from which there are excellent views across the large Gap valley.

5km further on is Gap itself, arrival being marked by a very large roundabout with four exits. The town is home to 45,000 people, making it the largest town in the Southern Alps and an important administrative centre. There are several theories attempting to explain the name with the most likely being that it was orginally named Vapincum by the Celts or pre-Celtic speakers of an Indo-European tongue, subsequently shortened to Vap and then modified by the Franks or Goths. The cathedral - Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Arnoux de Gap - is much younger than it at first looks, having been built between 1866 and 1905; the very successful neo-Gothic design making it appear to have stood since the Middle Ages, as did the genuine medieval cathedral it replaced and which itself stood on the spot of a Roman temple to Apollo. Gap hosts the finish line of the stage, but since only 139km have been covered so far there's obviously more riding to be done - and since the remainder includes the 1268m Col de Manse, quite a bit more.

The road into Gap features several obstacles including roundabouts and sharp bends which only require a little rain and a patch of spilled diesel to become deadly, especially to tired cyclists: the N85  through town, being a major urban route, is likely to be especially hazardous due to the buses which use it and the large number of trees depositing wet leaves on the tarmac during the current windy weather. There are excellent views across the town and valley as the road skirts the northern edge at an altitude of about 820m and a series of potentially hazardous switchbacks shortly before Les Bumats. Soon, the peloton turns off the N85 via a tight right-hander onto the D944 which leads up to and over the Category 2 Col, the summit rather disappointingly being dotted with farms and homes - this is not really one of the Haute-Alpes, but there'll be plenty of those in the coming days.

Just after the summit the parcours switches to the D14 which carries it back south towards La Rochette, a fast descent where the bravest riders - those willing to trust in their tyres whilst gravity drives their speed up and up - will do well, and possibly have the best chances of getting down in one piece, too: modern tyres are very good indeed and most crashes on wet roads are caused by braking rather than the tyres. It was near here in 2003 that Joseba Beloki, a rider with the ONCE team who had started his career with Euskaltel-Euskadi, crashed badly and broke his elbow, hip and wrist, forcing him to abandon the race and subsequently retire. Lance Armstrong had been right behind him at the time and, to avoid the crash, went for a spot of mountain biking across the field next to the road, rejoining the peloton on the other side; which has been featured in just about every "Greatest Tour de France Moments" compilation produced ever since. Beloki later returned to professional racing with BBox for a short time before a row over the drugs used to treat his asthma saw him depart for Saunier Duval-Prodir and then Astana, becoming embroiled in the notorious Puerto doping scandal which left Astana unable to compete in the 2006 Tour and finding himself without a team in 2007 when he retired for a second time.

A short way on from La Rochette is a very sharp right-hand bend onto the D314 which, as today is likely to be wet and the riders are going to be travelling at high speed on the descent will be perhaps one of the most dangerous points on the entire stage; and if that one claims no victims there's an even sharper left-hand bend coming up, followed by a right-hand bend only a little less challenging - in both cases, fields immediately due to the north and a few metres higher may see the rain wash mud onto the road, making the surface even more slippery.

Just outside Gap is Domaine de Charance is
dedicated to the study and conservation of
alpine plants.
Two switchbacks a few kilometres on in a wooded section are likely to be every bit - if not even more - of a hazard and the junction onto the N94 at Pont Sarrazin will come as a great relief to the riders at the end of a hairy descent, but it too is not without its dangers - a large lorry depot just outside Gap is another spot where diesel spills, as invisible as they are lethal to both cyclists and motorcyclist, are very likely and there's a big roundabout just next to a carpark as the road enters the town. The final kilometre runs along the straight Avenue de Marechal Foch, making this another finish ideal for sprinters - assuming can make it to the front of the peloton and have any energy left after the climb.

Predictions: Cadel Evans is obvious contender, a great climber and fast all-rounder who is looking to be a far more dangerous challenger to the Schlecks than Contador in the hills this year - and he's very fast on the flat too, which could see him defeat the Col and then light the afterburners for a blast back down into Gap. Sylvain Chavenel is also very fast, but he seems to have a particular talent for maintaining high speed in heavy rain when others reduce speed to cope with the slippery conditions and become demoralised. Then there's always the possibility that a chancer  will try his luck, like Jelle Vanendert did the other day: don't forget that long, straight final sprint to the finish at Gap's town centre park - any sprinter who can make it in good shape up, over and down Col de Manse will have a huge advantage over the climbers here.

Weather: Easily summed up today - horrible. There's a possibility that the final loop up and over the Col de Manse could even be cancelled as a result. St.-Paul-Trois-Châteaux is already looking pretty grim and it's raining in Saint-Maurice-sur-Eygues at the time of writing. It's apparently not raining at the present in Aubres, but heavy showers are forecast throughout the day. Verclause looks set to be much the same, but wind gusting at up to 27kmph from the east is going to mean a very unpleasant ride as it drives the rain straight into the faces of the riders as they battle their way into it. Moydans and Serres are no better, but conditions could become even worse around Veynes where a north-easterly wind is touching 37kmph at times - more than enough to cause problems and blow riders across the road. The fastest winds predicted today for Gap are a slightly more manageable 22kmph, but heavy rain is forecast throughout the day. It's not going to be a pleasant ride at all.

DEVIL WATCH: The Devil usually shows up un the upward slope of a climb approaching the finish, so Col de Manse is the most obvious place for him today. On the other hand, there are quite a few very pretty locations along the way - Moydans, situated on a small climb, is also a possibility.

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