Friday 15 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 13 Preview

Stage 13, at "a mere" 152.5km, is the shortest of this year's Tour except for the time trials and largely ceremonial final jaunt to the Champs-Élysées, but it should most definitely not be discounted as an easy one - the altitude profile shows beyond argument that this is a very difficult stage indeed and there's a high probability that not all of the riders who set out upon it are going to make it to the finish line. Shortly before the stage began, news came in that Gert Steegmans of QuickStep would not be starting the race due to a wrist injury sustained in a crash.

That big pointy thing two thirds of the way along is the Col d'Aubisque, a 1709m high pas which exists because of the Tour: in 1910, Tour organiser Alphone Steinès visited the area and decided that the mountain would be an ideal accompaniment to Col du Tourmalet, also used for the first time that year, and so he paid a call to the local official in charge of building roads in the region and was told, "Take the riders up the Aubisque? You're completely crazy in Paris!"

However, as is so often the case with officials, the man was easily convinced to change his mind by the application of brute finance - Steinès offered the enormous sum of 5000ff to pay for the work (though the canny Henri Desgrange later reduced it by 3000ff).

Like Tourmalet, Aubisque has achieved legendary status among cyclists who come from all around the world to emulate their heroes - at their own pace! - by climbing its Hors-Categorie flanks, and it too has collected a myriad of stores. One of the most famous is that of the Dutchman Wim van Est who, in 1951, lost control when his front tyre skidded out on a patch of loose gravel, plunging headlong into a ravine. His support crew and spectators rushed to the edge, not wanting to see the messy sight they expected but hoping he might have somehow survived. Miraculously, he was unhurt save for bruises; having landed on a sloping section before rolling to a halt some 70m down - had he have fallen a metre to either side he'd have plummeted to a certain death on the rocks hundreds of metres below.

All well and good, but how was he going to get out? His manager got a rope from the car but it wasn't long enough, so instead he used it to tie together forty tyres - the team's entire stock for the race - and lowered them over the edge. Thankfully, they extended far enough and Wim was pulled back up to the road. However, the tyres were stretched and useless so the team had to be extra careful not to damage those already fitted to their bikes until new ones could be supplied. The location of Wim's near-death experience has been marked since 2001 with a statue highlighting the fact that while he kept his life in the incident, he lost the yellow jersey - which he wore on two more occasions during a long and distinguished career.

The start today is Pau, where the 87,000 inhabitants have had the honour of seeing their town serve as a stage town no less than 63 times. The chateau, originally a genuine medieval defensive castle which has subsequently been prettified over the years so that it's now as much gateau as chateau, is widely considered one of the finest in France. Used as a holiday cottage by Napoleon, it now houses a museum with a collection of medieval tapestries.

Once Pau is left behind via the D945 and D733 we soon come to Bougarber where a well-preserved medieval gatehouse marks what was one of the boundaries of the village in the days when it was an important refuge for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. Jacques de Compostela across the border in Spain. We may find what the Tour cyclists do on this stage impressive, but for medieval pilgrims the Pyrenees held far greater dangers - until comparatively recently, it was a place of bears, lynxes, wolves and vicious bandits.

This flat early part of the stage seems another obvious place for an early breakaway. We predict that a group of between five and eight riders, probably including some from FDJ and perhaps Sky's Xabier Zandio who has gone a bit quiet in the last few stafes, will successfully attempt to open a gap within the first few kilometres before trying to keep it up over the two small climbs and through the sprint, grabbing any points they can along the way.

The parcours makes its way through a variety of road junctions to Lacq, a not unattractive village with a very impressive modern town hall. Unfortunately, the village's charms are somewhat wasted due to being right next door to a vast gas refinery not far off 1.5km in width, around which the peloton will skirt by way of the S-shaped D31 before reaching Lagor 30km from the start. The D9 takes us south east down to Mourenx which is the sort of place Frederick Gibberd probably hoped Harlow and Stevenage in the UK would turn out to be, through Lahourcade and onwards to Monein where the village church has an unusually prison-like tower. 5km on we come to the first climb of the day which, when compared to what comes later, hardly counts as a climb at all; the Côte de Cuqueron tops out at a not-very-impressive 265m. It has an average gradient of 8.1% however, which is steep in anyone's books and explains why it's Categorised 3.

6km down the road is Lacommande, the name coming from the presence of the medieval commandery built and originally used by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and from there it's 7.5km to Lasseube where there are enough grand homes on the surrounding hills to keep most chateaufans safe from withdrawal symptoms for a good while. There are a couple of fairly sketchy corners in the middle of the village which could prove problematic if it rains, this being a rural area and thus liable to diesel spills from tractors and other vehicles.

As we reach the 65km, the road heads upwards again for the Cat 4 Côte de Belair. Once again, it's not exactly a lungbuster at 428m but the 8.4% gradient is respectable and the riders will probably be glad to slow down a bit and get some energy bars down them when they get to feed station at Sévignacq-Meyracq which is reached in 11km time.
The intermediate sprint at Bielle will see those riders who need to grab all they can during the mostly flat first part of the stage battling it out for the points on offer along the flat valley floor where the village lies between foothills on either side - if a breakaway hasn't already been through and picked up the best prizes, expect a hell-for-leather mass brawl here with Mark Cavendish a likely winner so long as the Stage 12 mountains didn't hurt him too much.

23km further on down the D934 in Gourette, a winter resort 1400m above sea level which was once also famous for its goldmines - the remains of the railtracks along which carts ran carrying ore can still be seen on the mountainsides. From here, the Hors-Categorie Col d'Aubisque is 4.5km away along the D918 which twists around and about on its way to the top - by which point the riders will have just completed a 16.4km climb with an average gradient of 7.1%, ending up 1709m above sea level. There are stunning views of the rocky crags to the south, the tops not far off 1000m higher still. On the way down the route passes through the Cirque du Litor, an incredibly beautiful section and after 9.5km the Col du Soulor, a small uncategorised climb up a "false summit" - small, but at 1471m the air is sufficiently rarified to make it hard-going. The D918 in this section has to be one of the most spectacular roads in Europe, clinging to the sides of the steep mountainsides and passing through arches carved into the rock.

Soon we come to the little village of Aucun, the first of many packed into the next few kilometres, then Arras-en-Lavedan with an ancient round tower, presumably the last part of some vanished stronghold or castle, stands next to the village church may once have belonged to it. After that it's Argeles-Gazost, a spa town which became a popular resort in the latter half of the 19th Century and has many villas - some of them more like good-sized chateaux - as a result.

By the time we reach Ayzac-Ost we're rather disappointingly back onto flat terrain again and there are only 13km to go to the end of this final Pyrenean stage. As a result, Agos-Vidalos - perhaps not the most attractive village at the best of times - seems really quite depressing. It's lucky for us, then, that the stage finishes in Lourdes which this year is acting as a stage town for the third time.

Lourdes is, of course, the location of the marian visions experienced by a local woman who was subsequently declared a saint by the Vatican, giving rise to the most prosperous industry in the area. Now, whether you believe in that sort of thing or not is up to you (regular readers will probably have guessed by now that it's not part of my heritage) but if there's one thing you can say for Catholics, it's that they know how to put up a decent-looking church and it's no surprise that a place like this has some fairly good ones. The Rosary Basilica is the most famous, but the traditionally-styled Ukrainian church with its golden domes is a spectacle too. If, on the other hand, you're the type of person who dislikes all ecclesiastical buildings due to a dislike of religion in general, ignore them all and have a look for La Citadelle instead, the vast and imposing medieval castle on a rocky hill in the centre of the town.

La Citadelle, Lourds.

Predictions: It could be just about anyone today - if they can climb a bit and keep up a decent speed on the flat, the stage is there for the taking. The thing is, of course, those conditions apply to a lot of people - including some of the top name GC guys. This isn't really a stage for the top climbers, but if Andy decides he wants it there's probably not much to stop him. Yes, he'll be wanting to save energy for the mountains in Stage 14, but isn't being able to do this sort of thing day in and day out what being a champion climber is all about?

If he doesn't, then why not his big brother Frank? Frank has probably had a fairly unpleasant couple of years, outshone by his kid brother, but a lot of observers are wondering if perhaps Frank's on better form than Andy this year - he's certainly having a very good Tour. Encouraged by his third place win in Stage 12, he might decide Stage 13 is the one where he's going to go for the top place on the podium - and it's looking like he could get there, too. The stage could also give us another showing of Euskaltel's strength as there's only one more on their turf, so they might want to demonstrate their fearsome climbing ability. Wildcard: Geraint. Nobody knew that the young Welshman was capable of doing what he did in Stage 12 and he probably even surprised himself. If he's recovered overnight and feels up to it in the morning he could decide to put his newly-discovered superpowers to the test and find out what he's capable of. He's got our vote, anyway.

Weather: Warm and sunny in Pau this morning - if anything, perhaps a little too warm at 26 C with virtually no breeze at all. Light cloud will prevent it becoming really oppressive. Artix and Monein should be much the same, though the clouds may thicken after 40km from the start. By Lassuebe it will likely be a couple of degrees cooler and by Bielle possibly a full 10 C cooler than the start, with a chance of light showers. Gourette should be sunny but temperatures are predicted to be 13 C. Visibility at Gourette will be around 10km, permitting good views of the high mountains. Col d'Aubisque, therefore, will be a degree or two cooler due to altitude and may be windier though strong winds are not forecast anywhere along the route. Aucun should be around 15 C, again very gentle winds with a 1 in 5 chance of showers this morning, but these should have cleared by this afternoon when the Tour arrives. Lourdes, down in the lowlands, will be warmer with around 20-24 C predicted for late afternoon. However, it also has a higher chance of rain.

Note that weather can be highly unpredictable in mountainous areas with sudden changes happening rapidly and without warning.

DEVIL WATCH: As all Devil Spotters know, the Devil likes steep climbs because they offer an ideal opportunity to leap about at the roadside and cheer the riders on when they're suffering the most. Thus, it's really got to be on the way up Col d'Aubisque - a place he has put in many appearances over the years. We'd love to  see him strolling through the centre of Lourdes, but he's a very non-evil devil and would be unlikely to do so for fear of causing offence.

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