Thursday 21 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 18 Preview

If you want to demonstrate to someone what the Tour de France is - the horror, the pain, the beauty and the skill - then you could do far worse than show them today's stage. This is the Big One, the Queen, possibly even the Decider.

In this 200.5km stage, riders must tackle three Hors-Categorie mountains, the harshest test in what is a three-week series of challanges, the most deadly weapon in the Tour's well-stocked arsenal. Proceedings kick off in Pinerolo where Stage 16 came to a close, the Italian town acting as a stage town for the first time this year. The peloton leaves on the S589 as it heads from the city centre, passing some good new buildings before entering the flat countryside to the south. This first section is likely to encourage early breakaways as riders with no chance of picking up big points in the high mountains race ahead in an attempt to get to the intermediate sprint (starting today after 46.5km), meaning that we're likely to see a repeat of yesterday when various riders attempted to escape the pack right from the end of the neutral zone. It might be a short while before anyone meets with any success, but it'll come early so that those within the escape group can pick up whatever points they can.

The road is almost perfectly straight with the exception of a large roundabout at the junction with the SP161 which passes above on a fly-over - however, with the entrance and exit to the roundabout being slightly off-set to the left, negotiating the central island requires little deviation and other than spreading the pack out a little with have virtually no noticeable effect - and then heads on to another; this second one being trickier. Very soon it becomes possible to see the Castello di Osasco, standing at the north-western corner of a village. A little way on is a difficult roundabout with a kinked entrance that may trick some riders into taking the wrong line and subsequently losing time. Just past Garzigliani the road crosses two rivers before continuing south through a little hamlet named Casenuove and straight through a crossroads.

Rocca di Cavour.
The road is straight and untechnical as it enters Cavour, 9.5km from the start. This large town has grown up immediately north of the strange Rocca; an peculiar hill rising to 50m from the expansive flatlands all around a little like a miniature Mont Ventoux. Geological inspection of the Rocca reveals it to be a granite inselberg or monadnock - an isolated mountain - of which all but the visible tip has been buried by alluvial sediments. Archaeological survey reveals petroglyphs at various points about the rock and there are ruined fortifications. From here, the course heads south-west along more straight, flat roads to Bagnolo Piemonte which has an especially good-looking castle and views to the Alpine foothills rising just a few kilometres away. The road south leads to Barge, which marks 20km thus far travelled.

Castello di Envie.
Barge has in recent years become home to a vibrant Chinese community, which raises the prospect of an interesting fusion cuisine that would be ideal for a long-distance cyclist's needs. The great Lombardi San Giovanni Battista church is the town's most famous site, but with luck the weather will be clear enough for the camera operators to get some shots of the Rocca at Cavour, which looks particularly impressive from here. Taking the road east, the peloton heads around the forested hills which rise to over 1000m and onwards to Envie with a castle that was completely destroyed by Savoyard forces, then purchased and rebuilt in Romantic Gothic style by a Count Guasco Castelletto.

After 31.5km, the parcours reaches Revello which, with its many old and slightly unkempt buildings, looks like the location of every film Vittorio De Sica ever made. The route through town is tight with several corners, which may be difficult if wet, but the riders soon leave town and head east on the SP26 towards Saluzzo. Standing on a small rise and with many medieval towers and spires, Saluzzo is an impressive site when approached from the surrounding flat regions, though its better seen from the opposite angle to that from which the Tour arrives when it has the Alps as a backdrop. Highlight is the Casa Cavassa, once the stately home of the local lords but now put to far better use housing the town's museum and a beautiful synagogue, which still stands though the once vibrant Jewish community was all but wiped out in WW2, despite brave attempts by some locals to save them. In Saluzzo, the parcours changes onto the SR589 which looks to be a complicated process involving various roundabouts, corners and narrow urban streets - however, this does mean we'll get to see the attractive architecture throughout the town.

We then head south-east once more via Manta, site of another reconstructed castle - this one, a 14th Century stately home, stands on the sight of a 12th Century real castle - and on to the next town Verzuolo, separated from its neighbour by one field. Verzuolo would undoubtedly be a far more attractive place were it not for the large industrial plant on the eastern side of town but like the majority of Italian communities it has many other sights to recommend it. including one of the most beautiful castles along this stage and some ancient churches as pleasing to look at as they are interesting to explore. Verzulo marks today's intermediate sprint which, though uphill, climbs just 26m and as a result is likely to be hotly contested by any riders making up a breakaway group or - if no breakaway has formed - by the sprinters in the peloton who are going to have little chance to add to their successes for the remainder of the Tour.

On the southern edge of Verzuolo, the peloton turns south-west at a roundabout and travels toward Piasco, site of the world's only harp museum, and continues west around another roundabout to Venasca - the name, derived from an ancient word, is believed most likely to mean either "water" or "poison." As is often the case in Italy, this small town of around 1500 people has a church fit for a city - the Baroque Parrocchiale Maria Assunta was built in the 18th Century and has a richly decorated interior with what has been called the finest selection of marble sculpture and statues in Piedmont. The road skirts the town to the north, avoiding the narrow streets, but the church should be visible over the surroundings rooftops. The next town we pass through is Brossasco where the road turns north-west to reach the middle of the community, then south-west to carry us further along the SP8. This require two corners to be rounded, but they don't look as though they'll cause any problems.

After 63.5km, the parcours reaches Melle. This village, which a hundred years ago had a population of almost 2500 people but is now home to less than 400, is located in a narrow gap between the forested hills to the north and those that have been gradually closing in from the south for some kilometres now; leaving no doubt that we're heading into the mountains. It's still a long way to the summit, but along this stretch the Tour has begun the long and challenging climb to the summit of Col Agnel, the highest point of this year's race.

Further west we come to Frassino, site of an avalanche in 1850 that destroyed the village along with two others and killed 80 people, then past Rore to Sampeyre on the banks of an artificial lake created by a dam. Sampeyre has become something of a mountain biking centre in recent years with the many trails leading down from the mountains - which rise to over 3000m - being especially popular among downhillers. The road through the town is straightforward, becoming the SP105 as it exits to the west before passing through Calchesio and then rises through four switchbacks to Caldane before continuing west towards Casteldefino, which marks 85.5km ridden. As the name suggests, there was a castle here but it's now ruined - there's much more to see along the narrow medieval streets, some of which have buildings with old murals painted on their exterior walls. The lower parts of the town are almost 100m below the higher parts, so passage through involves two switchbacks at the western and eastern ends before the road moves on to Rabioux as the assault on the summit really gets under way.

Pontechianale Lake in winter.
As the road approaches Castello it's possible to see the Frazione Castello dam which has created a large lake. Once, when it was dry land, there were buildings here including a church, the tower of which would until recently emerge from the waters when levels were low but it's now collapsed. The peloton will travel along the lake's northern shore for 2km until it reaches the remaining, dry part of Pontechianale where the road becomes the SP251 and passes into a stunningly beautiful valley, largely uninhabited until it reaches Chianale 5.5km further up.

Col Agnel
Chianale marks the beginning of the final section of the 23.7km climb. From here onwards we are officially at high altitude - high enough for oxyhaemoglobin levels in the blood to begin falling rapidly, bringing about altitude sickness. Somewhat surprisingly in view of its familiarity among cyclists and people who follow the sport and the incredible scenery in the region, Col Agnel is one of the less well-known Alpine passes which makes it possible to ride over without seeing a single car on a good day. Let's hope it remains that way. All surprising in view of the same fame among the cycling fraternity is that this is only the second time it's been featured in the Tour, the first time having been as recently as 2008 when it was climbed from the opposite side.

The summit is reached by no fewer than seventeen switchbacks, each one a challenge in its own right as the bends - where the road moves up a level - can be much steeper than the average gradient of the climb (6.5%). As the rider crest the mountain, they cross the border and are once more in France to begin the long, steep and very fast descent which extends for just over 20km, taking in another six switchbacks which at this speed are extremely hazardous, along the D205. They pass through the tiny village of Fontgillarde, past Chateau-Renard and Pierre-Grosse before reaching Molines-en-Queyras, at which point they will have travelled 121km, leaving almost 80km to go. The village has an interesting church, destroyed in the 16th Century, rebuilt in the 17th and renovated in the 21st. The low, square tower is topped by a wooden construction with open sides, leaving the bells fully visible, and looks very rustic - however, the interior is a complete contrast, being lavishly decorated with a bright blue ceiling adored with gold decorations. The peloton will have to negotiate another pair of switchbacks on the way into the village before changing onto the D5 at a simple junction by the church. The road then passes by La Rua and follows the course of a rock-strewn mountain stream before veering off into a wooded section and, via another switchback, down to La Casse, across the river and left around a roundabout to Château-Ville-Vieille and the feeding station where musettes stuffed with energy bars and suchlike will no doubt be very welcome after Col Agnel, and especially since there are two more high mountains still to be climbed. Nearby is the village Chateau-Queyras, and on a rocky outcrop stands 13th Century Fort Queyras which survived a Savoyard siege even though the village was destroyed.

The road travels south-west, clinging to the mountainside above the river and becomes the D902 after 131.5km before turning north-west into a valley of alpine meadows leading towards Les Moulins and, after 3.5km, Arvieux at the start of the second Hors-Categorie climb to the 2360m summit of Col d'Izoard, 14.1km long with an average gradient of 7.3%.

To get up requires nine switchbacks and, once there, there's La Casse Déserte. This strange, lunar landscape, its name translating as The Broken Desert, has been called the most difficult section ever ridden in the Tour and is arguably more feared than Mont Ventoux. There are scrubby pine trees in the valley, but the steep slopes are pale and bare, giving the place an unearthly, lifeless appearance. It is undoubtedly one of the strangest places Nature has created anywhere in Europe. There's a monument up here, formed from a natural menhir, to Louison Bobet and Fausto Coppi, and a museum of Tour history - but very few cyclists ever make it here to visit.

La Casse Déserte
The parcours then descends via nine switchbacks into a green valley which, after the deathly La Casse Déserte, seems like the Garden of Eden. Another seventeen switchbacks take the road down almost 400m to Le Laus, where it once again becomes straight and comparatively level as it heads to Cervières where the river is directed through a sixteen-stepped "staircase," clearly visible as the riders pass to the south of the village before continuing the descent through the valley past another artificial lake and dam towards Briançon, a town we passed through yesterday, with the enormous and seemingly impregnable fortress that dominates the entire region.

Col du Galibier
Getting through Briançon is a reasonably simple process despite the corners and roundabouts because the town has been planned so as to permit the transport of heavy vehicles and goods such as cannon to the fort, meaning the roads are easy to get around by bike. We leave the town along the D1091 heading north-west towards La Salle-les-Alpes where the church of Saint Marcellin has some unusual and quite unsettling carvings in its stonework, then on to the spa town Le Monêtier-les-Bains which, with 22.5km to go, marks the beginning of the final climb: the 22.8km, 4.9% ascent to one of the most famous places in cycling, the Col du Galibier. This section may be made even more difficult by the weather - just two days ago, it snowed and there are likely to still be patches of slush in some places to catch the unwary and the tired. The summit is acting as the finish line for the very first time, though the mountain has been climbed by the Tour 31 times since its first appearance in 1947 and is the highest stage finish in the race's history. Whoever reaches the summit first is very likely to also reach the summit of the podium when the race ends in Paris following the next two stages.

Predictions: There's at least a 90% chance that today will be won by a Schleck, an Evans or a Contador. This is the sort of stage upon which Andy Schleck excels and after a not-especially-brilliant few stages, he's got a lot to prove. His form doesn't seem what it was last year, but let's not forget just how good a climber he is - provided the fast descents don't get the better of him, he's in with a good chance in this one; not least of all because he can keep going when others cannot. The same is true of Frank, but if he's to win Andy will first need to be in poor form and second admit to it, sacrificing his own race to help his brother win.

Cadel Evans is a favourite of many - he's been climbing spectacularly well this year and is much more comfortable when descending than the Schlecks. He's also not so worried when the weather turns bad, so if there's still snow on Galibier he'll be in a much better position to cope with it.

However, Contador has to be the top choice today. Following a lack-lustre performance on the earlier climbs, either due to sandbagging or genuine fatigue from the Giro d'Italia, he's really found his legs. Added encouragement comes from the fact that, with a large portion of the cycling world turned against him following his troubles with anti-doping measures, he arguably has even more to prove than Andy does: few things say "screw you guys" than winning this stage and then providing a crystal-clear testing record for the entire race would. Also, Contador has an extremely skillful assistant in Sammy Sanchez, an amazing climber in his won right, who has sworn his aid.

Weather: Looking good for the majority of the parcours with plenty of sun and winds no more than 10kph in the lowlands - however, maximum temperatures could reach 28 degrees C which is getting a bit too warm for comfort. Weather forecasting becomes much more difficult at altitude and conditions can change rapidly in the mountains, but at present it's also looking reasonable for Agnel and d'Izoard - though winds of up to 30kmph at the summits could cause problems. Galibier is a different matter - the summit is predicted to be misty and there are still some slushy patches following the snowfall two days ago. No new snow is predicted, but a 40kmph wind and 6 degrees C ambient temperature will make it feel very cold and could cause muscle aches and pains; especially for the climbers who have far lower levels of body fat than other cyclists.

DEVIL WATCH: As the old saying goes, the Devil is in the mountains. Oh alright, we may have got that a bit wrong - but when it comes to the Tour Devil, the pointy places are usually the best spots to find him as the peloton will be travelling more slowly and he gets a better opportunity to show himself to his admiring public. He could be on Agnel or the Col d'Izoard, but Galibier is probably more likely since it's the finish. We'll be expecting him somewhere around halfway up.

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