"First of the mountains today profile is more or less just climbing all day." (@swiftybswift, Team Sky's Ben Swift, Twitter)The sprinters have had a fun week up in the flatlands of Northern and Western France where the racing has been all on their terms, but their games come to an abrupt end today when the Tour de France - en route for the Pyrenees - turns south and into the Massif Central. More than anything else, this means that the race favourites begin to emerge: whoever does well on the climbs is a safe bet to do well in the Tour overall, especially in one such as this which is very much a race for the grimpeurs.
Today's start town is Aigurande with its unusual church that has a heavily-buttressed octagonal tower, close to the physical centre of France. With a population of under 1,700, the town is fortunate in having a cinema, a building which in part looks like the typically modernistic cinemas of the late 1940s and in part like one of the traditional houses of the region: an odd mix. The route soon travels through the flat and marshy land into the department of Creuse, which for many centuries provided architects and builders of cathedrals and other large projects. Known as the Masons of Creuse, they built the dam at La Rochelle and much of Baron Haussmann developments in Paris. The first village we come to in the department is La Forêt-du-Temple, site of what is reputed to be a Templar temple. Another few kilometres brings us to Nouziers, the northernmost town in Limousin, so expect some footage of large cows. 34km from tha start, we come to Boussac, location of the Chateau-Boussac-Sur-Petite-Creuse which is a long way from the prettiest of the chateaux but cannot be doubted as a contender for one of the most interesting-looking.
After 40km, we come to Lavaufranche which is home to a remarkable 12th Century hospital and commandery established by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. Then, 13km on at Lépaud, the riders should be able to catch sight of the rising terrain ahead. Is the name an omen in favour of "LépaudTrek?" Does LeopardTrek's success over the coming mountain stages even need to be preceded by an omen when they have both Frank and Andy Schleck?
At 65.5km is the first climb of the stage, a Category 4 which won't cause any serious problems but could prove to be the undoing of breakaway groups, especially if they're composed of riders who are already tired from earlier attempts.
After 83km comes Auzances which brings today's intermediate sprint, once again in its usual place near the halfway point rather than near the end as was the case yesterday. This really is the last chance for the sprinters, so expect a breakaway early on to make an attempt at getting there first. The big-hitters such as Cavendish and Hushovd may try to chase them down - and the breakaway isn't likely to last long if those two go after them - to take the top points for themselves as sprinting opportunities are somewhat limited for a while now, or they may let them go and settle for the smaller point allocations; content just to conserve energy that can be spent later when the climbers are having it all their own way.
|Blimey, that's a big dog. Puy de Dome.
Soon, the route passes Puy de Dome, a dormant - note dormant, not extinct - volcano which is well-known and notorious among cyclists as a challenging climb, very much this region's Mont Ventoux. The Tour has featured the climb on a number of occasions, including its first appearance in 1952 when Fausto Coppi was first up the long spiral road to the summit to win the stage and 1964 when Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor fought one another all the way to the top (I have footage of this on video, it's one of the all-time greatest Tour battles). The Tour does not climb it this year, however, and sadly probably never will again - organisers say that the roads to the summit are simply too narrow since the construction of the funicular railway. A great pity - but have a look on Google Earth, it's quite an amazing sight: 45° 46′ 20″ N 2° 57′ 57″ E.
The feeding station comes a little later, and the domestiques are going to be working hard to ferry back the musettes to their team's climbers who will wanting their energy gels (that's how seriously they take the Tour - they actually want to eat energy gel) because, from this point onwards, it's uphill almost all the way. Since the finish line is still 85km ahead, that means a lot of climbing. In the 15km immediately after the feeding station, it rises 117m which doesn't sound especially testing but the majority of that rise comes in one short, steep section called the Côte du Rocher des Trois Tourtes. A bigger, uncategorised climb of around 200m leads up to Briffons where there was once a fluorspar mine which brought prosperity to the area thanks to its use in the steel industry. Workers were permitted one fifteen minute break during the long and hard working day - according to Google's translation of French Wikipedia, "the teams had to surface a quarter of an hour to enjoy the snack time, it pulled the bagpipes of course." Not quite sure what that's all about.
Next comes flatter section which climbs just 72m in 17km. However, though this is a very low gradient, it's sufficient to take the parcours up to 1022m which means the effects of altitude become an issue for the first time in the 2011 Tour. It's here that those who are naturally better-equipped to perform at altitude and those who, through sheer hard work, have tuned their bodies to work in rarified air begin to dominate - which means Andy Schleck and, provided he isn't subjected to the bad fortune that has dogged him all the way since the Passage du Gois, Alberto Contador begin another epic battle for supremacy which will last through the majority of the rest of the Tour. That race-within-a-race begins in earnest over the coming kilometres when we reach the hardest climb of the 2011 Tour so far in the shape of the Category 2 ascent of the Col de la Croix Saint Robert, the first of the high mountain passes. This is an area that is frequently subjected to very high winds so climbers may wish to regroup with their teams at the summit and tackle the steep descent in echelons.
Predictions: Well, it's going to be a climber, innit. But who? Will Andy Schleck want to use the stage as an opportunity to say to the world, "You know how last year you all said I was going to be a great rider? Well, watch this!" Will Contador want to use it to say, "You know how you all wrote me off as a great rider? Well, suck on this!" And, if Contador does want to win today, is Andy now strong enough to prevent him doing so - or on the other hand, will both of them sit back and let this first climb go to a mere mortal since they can play all they want on the big mountains to come? Of course, Frank Schleck can climb with the best of them too, so he's in the running. Don't forget that Euskaltel-Euskadi have been lurking in the peloton in the flat stages: Euskaltel are a team composed of Basque hardmen who ride up mountains like this one just to wake themselves up in the morning and, probably, to relax in the evening. Flat stages are not their thing at all, so today is an opportunity for them to start gaining points. For that reason, we're going to nominate Sammy Sanchez and Amets Txurruka as favourites, provided Andy Schleck and Contador don't lock horns. If they do, we'll be backing Schleck all the way.
Weather: It's not looking that good for Aigurande - while it's dry at present, there are grey clouds and showers forecast for the next couple of hours so a wet start is very likely. It's much the same for Nouzerines and Lavaufranche, the latter having a probability of thunderstorms this afternoon. Heavier rain is forecast for Chambon-sur-Voueize but it should have lightened to showers by the time the peloton hits Rougnat, Tralaigues, Briffons, Mont-Dore, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise and Super-Besse. Mmm, cycling up mountains in the rain. Fun. The temperature should top out in the low 20s and the wind is light, coming from the south east, but may be considerably stronger on the summits especially Col de la Croix Saint-Robert.
DEVIL WATCH: The mountains may be grimpeur country, but they're also the natural habitat of the Devil because steep climbs offer an ideal opportunity to run along with the riders and cheer them on. Luckily, the Tour Devil is considerably less evil than most other devils and so the Cross of Saint Robert won't be any impedance should he choose to appear nearby.