Friday, 22 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 19 Preview

A very short stage today at just 109.5km, but with more than enough climbing to keep even the most sadistic of fans entertained: for the second time this year the peloton will be tackling the mighty Galibier with its 16.7km Hors-Categorie grind up to 2556m. Of course, the team medics would be most unimpressed were their charges to attempt tackling that without a few warm-up exercises; so the organisers have thoughtfully thrown in an 11.9km Category 1 ascent of Col du Télégraphe within the first 30km. Oh, and there's a second HC climb of 13.8km reaching 1850m up to the summit of Alpe d'Huez at the end of the stage too, just to get the riders relaxed and ready for their beds.

The Savoyan flag
The stage begins in the heart of the Savoie region, part of the now-defunct nation of Savoy that once straddled the Franco-Swiss-Italian borders and which had the longest-surviving Royal dynasty in Europe; beginning with Humbert I in 1003 and still with us in somewhat reduced circumstances today. Savoy started as a poor and undeveloped area, but its ruling class became skilled at exercising tight control over what was transported through the high mountain passes and extracting money from those involved in such activities. Today, Savoy has a small separatist movement with surveys suggesting between 40 and 55% of the population support devolution from France and Italy and the re-establishment of their nation on its traditional territory. Thus, it's often possible to spot a few Savoyan flags (Savoyan if the official demonym; the more common Savoyard is informal and shouldn't be applied to the flag, though most people probably rightly wouldn't care) waving among the spectators when the Tour visits this region.

La Maison Penchée
Modane lies at the foot of a wide, green valley and is almost contiguous with Saint-André and Villabordin-Rogret to the west and east. Home to around 4000 people who have been Italian at various points in the town's history as well as French and Savoyard; belying the strategic importance of the area and explaining the large number of fortifications dating from medieval times to WW2 dotted around the town and high up into the surrounding mountains. The most famous of these is La Maison Penchée: a concrete bunker designed to house explosives should the Mont-Cenis tunnel need to be blown up if war broke out. Towards the end of WW2, the Nazis blew up the tunnel to hamper future Allied movements. The explosion blew the bunker - which remained intact - more than 30m and it ended up partially buried where it still stands today.

Things are very different in Europe since the EU and nowadays crossing borders between constituent states rarely even requires a passport, so Modane has grown wealthy from the tourists who base themselves here due to the easy access to the Alps of France and Italy - usefully providing employment for those residents who are not cut out for work in the particle physics research laboratories in the area. We leave the town along the D1006 heading west, a non-technical stretch of road sandwiched between the river to the north and railway tracks to the south with a large roundabout on the western perimeter. Another roundabout marks the little hamlet of Freney, home to 85 people, and the large industrial site stuck right next door - if there's one thing the French love, it's an industrial site placed slap in the middle of an area of great natural beauty. A third - insanely complex - roundabout with six exits and a fly-over carries the peloton onwards, the road sharing the river bank with the A43 and passing by a rocky gorge, more industry and a little village named La Praz - the site of the pretty and unmistakably alpine Villa Paul Héroult. Just to the south, Pointe de la Sandoniere reaches almost 2900m.

Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, artfully cropped so as not to
show the aluminium works which bring prosperity and
ugliness in equal parts to the town.
Soon, we come to a section where the road tackles an artificial lake by way of a wide causeway before continuing crosswise over the dam and up a slipway leading into the long Tunnel d'Orelle, emerging some way on and travelling below the A43 for a while. Soon, it veers north and into Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne. The village is attractive enough, but tourists are a little dissuaded by the enormous aluminium works on the edge of town - even if the owners do provide funds for the doubtless fascinating museum devoted to the history of the metal which is located in the town.  However, we're disappointingly not going to see it today as after 14km the parcours turns south-west via a sharp but uncomplicated corner onto the D902 - a road also known, ominously, as the Rue du Galibier - taking us immediately into Saint-Martin d'Arc; passing through on a sweeping road as it begins to rise before reaching the next village, La Ravoire, where the first climb begins in earnest.

Fort du Telegraphe
The Col du Télégraphe, with an average gradient of 7.1% (maximum 10%) is climbed by means of 14 hairpin switchbacks on a road that visits several tiny and picturesque hamlets along the way before reaching a high ridge south of the Fort du Télégraphe which stands at almost 1600m and commands the valley roads far below. The site was originally occupied by an optical telegraphy station - a method by which a chain of towers are used to pass coded messages from one station to the next by means of symbols formed by articulated arms, similar to semaphore - which gave the Col its name, with the fort built between 1896 and 1890. As such, it lacks the charm of a medieval fortress but is nevertheless an imposing structure. The site has come full circle, for today the fort is topped by a collection of communications masts. The highest point comes 26.5km from the start.

The road follows the ridge for a while, offering views best described as stupendous, then reaches the tiny village called Le Col that has grown up chiefly on the money spent by the cyclists and motorcyclists who come up here and passes Les Granges, which consists largely of chalets for skiers but also has a tiny, picturesque chapel with a single bell. 4.5km onwards and over 100m downwards from the Col is Valloire which has grown to become the largest skiing resort in the Maurienne region, but unlike most ski centres the town has managed to retain much of its traditional alpine appearance and Savoyard character. There are, of course, many modern chalets; but there are much older buildings located about the town too, such as the Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption which can be described as sumptuously decorated even by the standards of Baroque churches. There is also a ruined Chateau Saint-Pierre, but little remains of it.

As soon as Valloire is left behind, the parcours in on the slopes of the Col du Galibier; climbing today from the opposite direction to Andy Schleck's incredible winning ride yesterday and this side is rated considerably harder. The road travels south for a while, connecting an assortment of villages, before turning left and then right as it crosses a bridge over the rock-strewn stream. It then stays fairly level until a pair of hairpins take it up 20m or so, then begins to climb more rapidly on the approach to a small bridge near a barn where it turns south-east. A series of wide bends takes it between high cliffs which look a little like those along the Casse Deserte yesterday and towards a switchback combined with a bridge where the altitude reaches 2000m.

Col du Galibier
From here, the climbing really begins as a series of hairpins carries the road up to a ridge, which continues onwards and upwards. A final set of seven hairpins brings the Tour to the summit. Plenty of riders - especially the sprinters - will be wishing it was yesterday at this point: they may ridden much further to get here yesterday, but at least once they were here the stage was over. They'll take some comfort from the fact that they're going through the tunnel today, past the Henri Desgrange memorial where a wreath will be placed as it is every time the Tour comes this way, so they don't have to climb as high as yesterday. Those riders not so comfortable with fast descents will be wishing it was all over too because the road back down Galibier is steep and almost 40km long, twisting and turning about several tricky switchbacks as it picks its way precariously downwards to the junction with the D1091 - which we take - just east of an alpine plants botanic garden.

La Grave
The route heads west again, around two steep hairpins and into a long descent through the valley towards Villar-d'Arêne, 63.5km from the start line. More hairpins carry us downwards towards the tunnel which brings us out to La Grave which, with its 12th Century church and stunning location, has been voted as one of the beautiful villages in France and it truly is a stunning place with a perfect cafe that serves the best coffee in France - inhabited whilst I was there by three German goths whom, so far as I could gather, had driven in an ancient Mercedes from Frankfurt simply because of the village's name and were somewhat disappointed at the cheerful prettiness of the place. The excellence of the coffee, however, was sufficient to perk even them up.

The parcours continues downhill to the Lac du Chambon and passes through two tunnels on the northern shore before a sharp left hand corner takes it along the dam at the western side, then around an outcrop and down through the forest into Le Freney-d'Oisans, at which point there is 25.5km to go. The road out clings to the side of a near-vertical cliff, passing through a tunnel and past a look-out which offers stunning views up the valley before climbing up, around and back down a rocky promontory overlooking another artificial lake and Le Clapier, which is reached by means of a bridge over the dam's outflow. Immediately north of the village in the Alpe d-Huez, rising rapidy from the lake to over 2100m.

The 21 hairpins en route to the summit
of Alpe d'Huez.
After Le Clapier, the road becomes almost poker straight and level for a little over 3km and, were it not for the scenery and the fact that it's today's intermediate sprint, would be rather boring. This is a sprint that both Mark Cavendish and Jose Joaquin Rojas could really do with winning - it would go a long way to securing victory for Mark and could earn victory for Jose in the points competition - but chances of either man getting here in time to pick up any points at all are so marginal they may as well be ignored. It soon reaches a roundabout at Le Bourg-d'Oisans where the riders turn right onto the D211, beginning the ascent of Alpe d'Huez.

The Alpe acts as a stage finish this year for the first time since 2008, having been unusually absent on the schedule for the two years up until now, and makes a welcome return. Getting to the top takes in an incredible 21 hairpins, each named after riders who have won a stage there - though since 2001 it's become necessary to start adding the names of recent winners to those who gave their names to the lower bends in years gone by - that year, the lowest hairpin became known as the Coppi-Armstrong. As one of the most famous climbs in the Tour there is guaranteed to be vast crowds of spectators along this section, all hoping to see the rider who, upon winning this stage, may also win the Tour.

Cadel's turn to win today?
Predictions: This afternoon, another hairpin on the climb up Alpe d'Huez will be renamed - but will it be named in honour of Evans or a Schleck? In fact, Frank Schleck already has one named after him, since he won here in 2006 - is it possible that either he or Andy will give the family name to another? In Frank's case, it's actually quite likely - he had a relatively easy ride yesterday, sheltering behind Cadel and Voeckler while Andy was out at the front busying himself with winning the stage, then got into gear and scooted past them to take second place; so he's going to have a lot more left in him today than many other riders. For Andy, it's not so likely - he may be one of the greatest riders in of recent years, but mounting an attack 60km from the finish and then working it all the way up another two HC mountains is going to take a lot out of anyone, even him. But one thing we all learned yesterday is that nobody should ever write him off: the entire cycling press had given up on him for this Tour, and then he scored not just a stage win but one of the best stage wins since the days of Eddy Merckx.

Cadel worked hard yesterday, pulling himself and Thomas Voeckler all the way up Galibier; but he's a strong rider and looking better than ever this year which puts him in a better position than anyone else to defeat the Schlecks. His style is the complete opposite of theirs, brute strength to their almost balletic grace, but they are equally matched in terms of ability. As a wildcard, how about Contador? He's not going to be at all pleased about his ride yesterday, during which he appeared to crack and was unable to respond to his Luxembourger rival. But Contador has up days and down days - if he's having an up day today, there might not be anyone who can catch him.

Weather: Another nice day, by the looks of things - sunny and warm at the start (up to 23 degrees C) and manageable winds over most of the course. At the Col du Telegraphe it'll drop to about 10 degrees, but an east wind of no more than 10kmph will prevent it being too uncomfortable. Galibier is a different matter being so much higher, expect a north wind of 15-20kmph here which, with ambient temperatures of 9 degrees, will make it feel decidedly chilly. On the other side, the valleys will be much warmer with highs up to 26 degrees. Stronger winds up to 30kmph from the north-west may cause problems, acting as cross - and headwinds over some sections. Alpe d'Huez should be fine, plenty of sun and though temperatures are likely to be no more than 10 degrees at the summit. a 15kmph wind from the south-east will prevent it becoming too cold.

DEVIL WATCH: There's really no need for discussion today - he'll be on one of those hairpins going up Alpe d'Huez. Remember, all you goodly folk - if you see tridents painted on the road, the Devil lurketh somewhere nearby.

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