Wednesday 20 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 17 Preview

Following yesterday's damp and (for the Schleck bros.) disastrous taster, today sees the Tour enter the High Alps proper with a variety of climbs up to Category 2 and 1869m before crossing the border into Italy for the real test of Stage 17, Sestrieres. Though "only" a Category 1 - largely, one suspects, due to its popularity as a skiing resort and thus having roads permitting the rich to drive their Bentleys, Beemers and Benzes up there - the mountain pass tops out at 2035m, meaning that cyclists and others partaking in harsh physical activities need to contend with the effects of altitude in addition to the sheer stress of climbing to such a height which is close to the point (approx. 2100m) at which oxyhaemoglobin is rapidly reduced to potentially dangerous levels.

The stage begins in Gap, acting as a stage town for the 20th time (the last time having been yesterday) and ends 179km away in Pinerolo - the Tour is just one of many links between the towns because they've been twinned for forty years. The first 30km or so are fairly flat with the departure from Gap a simple matter along the N94; a major road heading past Pont Sarrazin where yesterday the riders began the final section into Gap after the crazy descent of Col de Manse, which heads first east and then south-east past La Bâtie-Neuve. La Bâtie-Neuve insists that since it has more than 2000 inhabitants it's a city, but they're not fooling us with that - the village is small and they must be counting everyone in the immediate area (in order to claim more from the EU, perhaps?) Either way, it's an attractive enough place with a good mix of the ancient (assorted medieval buildings and remnants of medieval fortifications) and well-designed modern - which not creates a harmonious whole but also makes it a pleasant place to live. Early breakaways look set to be the order of the day and are likely to be more successful than yesterday when it took a long time and many kilometres before a group managed to get away.

As it hits the 14km point the peloton reaches Chorges, a town of around 2500 people. Local legend has it that the inhabitants are descended from a group of Ancient Greeks who had set up home in Italy before being driven into France by violent Celtic invasions: like all the best legends, there is no evidence to prove this one way or the other and the locals will hopefully not subject themselves to DNA profiling in an effort to find out. Chorges' church, dedicated to Saint Victor. The original church incorporated sections of architecture from the time when Chorges was an important Roman city, but it was largely destroyed in a fire in the late 16th Century and then burned again just over a hundred years later by Savoyard soldiers.

Usually submerged, the Viaduc de Chateloube reappears
when water levels in the lake fall.
Soon, the parcours reaches the enormous Lac de Serre-Ponçon, the second largest artificial lake in Europe by volume, and winds around the northern shores, using bridges across the picturesque inlets between hills and outcrops. The lake is the site of an underwater bridge, too - the Viaduc de Chanteloube which was built in the early 20th Century, designed to carry a railway that was never finished across the valley to Chorges. When a damn was built and valley flooded, the viaduct vanished underwater but reappears periodically when water levels are low. The dam was the first to be surveyed without the lake behind it being drained in 1963, when a submarine was used.

This section of the stage brings one of the most remarkable points of the Tour when the riders cross the lake on the Pont de Savine Le Lac, a bridge about a kilometre in length and offering spectacular views across the lake and to the mountains, from the northern shores to the town of Savines-le-Lac which is located 26.5km from Gap. The town is home to around 1200 people and has a remarkable modern church dating from the 1960s but looking like it was designed by Le Corbusier.

Chateau de Picomtal at Crots.
The passage through the town should be a simple matter - there are central reservations but the road is wide with just one sweeping left-hand bend and no roundabouts. It then heads east along the lake's southern shore towards Crots. Despite being situated in an area with soil unsuited to agriculture, Crots became a place of some importance and has a 12th Century abbey, Abbaye Notre-Dame de Boscodon, home to monks of the Order of Chalais who appear to have existed primarily by foraging in the nearby forests and sheep raised on the hills. The abbey is notable for the symbolism incorporated into it - for example, it's aligned so that certain parts will be illuminated on certain days of the year, has proportions related to the Golden Ratio and several features relating to the number seven. Crots is also home to the very beautiful Château de Picomtal.

Soon, the route comes to a large and complicated roundabout at Grand Liou. With five exits, there are wide triangular sections in the middle of the roads leading from it which may prove slippery and problematic for any rider who takes bad line and needs to cross them. The N94 then skirts around Embrun where the ancient part of town sits atop a high rocky outcrop - site of the Tour Brun d'Embrun, a medieval tower, and a 13th Century cathedral - before continuing north-east and up a small uncategorised climb towards Chateauroux-les-Alpes after 42.5km.

Mont-Dauphin, the Arsenal.
The parcours then reaches some high cliffs rising to about 300m from road level and negotiates them by clinging to the lower part just above the river below - the mountains beyond the cliffs and on the other side of the river are much higher still, reaching more than 2600m above sea level. Rounding a bend, the road enters a small plateau along the valley floor and soon comes to Saint-Clément-sur-Durance, 49.5km from the start, before crossing the river and making its way along the side of more cliffs situated above a wide gorge. It passes a number of villages and the remarkable 17th Century fortress of Mont-Dauphin standing on an enormous flat-topped rock jutting out from the valley floor.

The route then turns north, soon coming to Saint-Crépin - home in the 19th Century to over a thousand people, now reduced to less than half as inhabitants have had to relocate elsewhere in search of work. An unusual roundabout just past the village has a central passageway, allowing the peloton to speed straight through without negotiating and bends. After 63km from the start they reach La Roche-de-Rame, once an important stop-over point for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. In that charming way that the French have, the valley contains a huge industrial complex devoted to the production of strontium, calcium and heavy metals extracted from the mountains and which has left many scars on the natural beauty of the area. Just as the village is left behind, markings on fields directly to the left (east) of the road reveal that at some point there were large buildings or heavy activities involving movement of earth here. A little further on is L'Argentière-la-Bessée and, just as they leave the town, the peloton begins the ascent of Cat 3 Côte de Sainte-Marguerite, 2.8km at 7.4% to 1216m. The summit is reached via two switchbacks, where the gradient can be much steeper than the average. The summit of the mountain stands at around 2800m, 1600m higher than the little village Saint-Marguerite which gives the climb its name.

The descent is long and fast, allowing little time to look at Queyrières - where we join the D36C - and its larger neighbour Saint-Martin-de-Queyrières where a complicated junction will see riders working their round tight bends and a roundabout to get onto the D36 which carried us along the banks of the river, under the N94 upon which most of the previous 75km have been complete, through a tunnel and out the other side into a straight, forested section. We then travel past Le Villaret towards Villar-Saint-Pancrace where a very small number of inhabitants still speak a dialect unique to the area - when they die, the dialect will die with them. Villar-Saint-Pancrace is also the location of the intermediate sprint which today features a climb of about 50m in the middle, making it more difficult than usual for the sprint specialists.

A very short way on is the beautiful town of Briançon, the ancient origins of which can be in no doubt since it was mentioned by Pliny, Ptolemy and others. The town was destroyed by a fire that raged for five days in the late 17th Century, the locals unable to combat the flames as it was winter and the local watercourses were all frozen. However, its strategic importance remained and so it grew up again, gaining a garrison and a number of 18th Century forts nearby. Entering the town looks technical with various roundabouts, the route swapping between the D36, D136, D2 and back to the N94 which takes it out of town and onwards towards La Chaussée, the stage's second Cat 3 climb which reaches 1333m via a short 1.4km climb at 8.3% - an unusual one in that it's urbanised all the way up and down. On the other side is the feeding station, a welcome sight to cyclists who have now covered 87.5km and climbed several hills.

Fort du Chaberton
Travelling along a wide, flat-bottomed valley, the parcours passes around La Vechette and on to the stage's first Cat 2 climb up to 1860m, a 6.1% gradient  for 7.9km with five switchbacks to Montgenèvre, one of France's oldest skiing resorts. Being so close to the border with Italy (the town has changed ownership between the two nations at various times through history), there are many forts high up in the mountains here, dating from Napoleonic times to WW2, including the Fort du Chaberton.

Just before the town of Claviere, the race crosses the border and enters Italy. Claviere was almost entirely destroyed by fighting between the French and Italians in WW2, but has regrown and become wealthy due to the excellent skiing offered in the area. The road through the town should be without problems, but a roundabout just east could cause problems for riders who elect to take the route around the left of the centre which requires a tighter bend than the right. The route travels another 6.5km between the high peaks and includes a twisty section into Cesana Torinese where we swap to the SR23 heading south and then east up the Cat 1 climb to Sestrières, 11.1km and 6.3% to 2035m. It seems strange to see such a modern town so high up among the ancient mountains, but Sestrières truly is a new town, having begun its life as one of Mussolini's pet projects. We can't hold being created by a Fascist against it, however, and it's a very beautiful town; the gleaming white buildings forming an attractive contrast t the dark, brooding rockfaces. Straight out of the town is the long and fast descent over 44km all the way to the final categorised climb.

The parcours heads through the mountains, bypassing a few hamlets over the next section. However, this section is largely uninhabited so we suggest you forget the history for a while, sit back and try to comprehend the astounding beauty of the region, one of the most astonishing places in Europe - but keep an eye on the action, because this descent is fast and technical. We're hoping everyone gets down in one piece, but it's very likely that at least one or two riders won't be finishing the stage.

We come eventually to Perosa Argentina, 153.5km from the start and where, as the name suggests, silver was once mined. Getting into and through the town is straight-forward, but a left-hand bend on the way out could prove to be a hazard if it's wet. Near Pinasca, on the opposite side of the valley, the road becomes the SP66 then a sort way on changes back to the SR23 again. At 171km, the final climb is reached - Cat 3, 6%, 6.7km Côte de Pramartino.

Once crested, it's downhill via a descent even more hazardous than that from Sestrières. This section has no less than 95 points described in the race book as dangerous and a great many of them are along this section, the part where today's winner is likely to be decided. The descent continues all the way through San Pietro Val Lemina and on into Pinerolo, home to 36,000 people and today acting as a stage town for the very first time. Pinerolo has, at various times, belonged to France, Italy and Savoy; creating an interesting mix of cultures. The finest structure in the town is perhaps the Madonna delle Grazie, a fitting name considering the graceful architecture, but there are many imposing buildings in the town both ecclesiastical in nature and otherwise. It also hosts an annual festival of chocolate, so what's not to like about the place?

Predictions: The poor performance of the Schleck Bros. changed everything yesterday, leaving them no longer among the favourites to win the Tour. However, they're both well-known for hating bad weather so there's always a chance that they could do well today if conditions are better in the mountains. The trouble is, so will Contador. One rider sure to put in a good show today is Cadel Evans - he's fast up and down mountains and can shift a bit on flat sections too, which is why he's our top choice today. We also think Thor Hushovd will do well since revealing himself as a master descender, as will Voeckler and possibly Chavenel.

Weather: As far as rain goes, it's not looking too bad today with sun forecast throughout the route. However, winds of up to 40kmph will cause problems, not least of all as they're coming from the north-east and and north-west, so will be headwinds over some parts of the parcours and crosswinds in several others. Temperatures in the valleys should be comfortable at around 20 degrees C, but it'll drop sharply to 10 degrees at the higher points.

DEVIL WATCH: There are many, many places for His BeSandaled Majesty to lurk throughout this stage, but we really can't imagine he'd be anywhere other than on the upward slope of that huge climb into Sestrières.

More pictures later when Blogger sort their current bugs out.

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