Saturday 18 June 2011

Route du Sud

With the Dauphine just finished, the Tour de Suisse in its penultimate stage and the Tour de France just around the corner it's easy to forget there are other races in progress at this time of the year. That's a pity because it can mean missing out of the Route du Sud which since inauguration in 1977 has seen some top quality racing in the Pyrenees and across Southern France, often offering a glimpse at what weaponry the teams will be touting when the Tour de France hits town two weeks later.

This year is no different with four days of racing, 720km total distance and guest appearances by those popular cycling stars Col d'Aspin and big, bad Col du Tourmalet in Stage 2. Port de Bales, as featured in the 2007 and 2010 Tours is also a feature and at 1755m will test the mettle of those who take it on in today's Stage 3.

Houses along the Agout. Lovely, but I bet rats are a problem
Stage 1 took in 203km of rolling terrain between Castres, where the houses along the Agout river surpass anything Venice has to offer for old world charm, and Samatan where the stage was won this year by Dutchman Stefan van Dijk riding for Veranda's Willems-Accent . Stage 2 wound its way into the mountains with 150 of its 177km in the Haute Pyrenees, A few tasty climbs of a couple of hundred metres or so blew away the cobwebs before the riders found themselves with 1489m Col d'Aspin, a road that has formed part of 66 Tours de France - almost as respectable as its neighbour Tourmalet, which has been in 75, and which at 2115m is both the highest point in this Route and the highest road in the entire Pyrenees. Near the summit stands a statue of Jacques Goddet who directed the Tour for 41 years until 1987. Anthony Charteau of Europcar was both first over the top and first across the finish line this year, just keeping ahead of Movistar's Vasil Kiriyienka but not without some extreme effort.

Today's Stage 3 is far less mountainous with little fluctuation in altitude before Col du Mente and an ascent not far short of 1000m. As the road to the top of Port de Bales begins at a higher point, the ascent is once again around 1000m, but being so much higher than Col du Mente the effects of altitude are greater and make it a harder climb. Charteau may prove to be the right man for the job once again in this section, but Kiriyienka won't give him an easy time of it. Davide Rebellin, back from his suspension after failing a dope test and rapidly approaching 40 years of age, took third place yesterday and there's every reason for him to do the same today.

Stage 4 is a different matter entirely, being downhill almost all the way of its 143km to Pau, declared by poet Alphonse de Lamartine to have "the world's most beautiful view of the Earth." The sprinters will seize their chance to shake up the overall standings over this stage, which makes it very difficult to even guess who might be declared the race's eventual winner.

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