LYON, France – This week, the Tour de France goes sharply uphill, much more sharply than last year. More likely than not, the champion who will be crowned next Sunday in Paris will be the cyclist who copes best with this week of vertical torture.
The pain starts Sunday on the horrid climb of Mont Ventoux, a barren white mountain that rises from the sunbaked plains of Provence. The 181 riders who have survived the 1,444 miles of the race so far, out of 198 who started two weekends ago, will see the climb coming long before they hit it, so there will be plenty of time for apprehension and butterflies in the stomach to build.
The forecast is for uninterrupted sunshine, so the riders will find no relief from the weather. As if the climb itself wasn’t hard enough, they will already have ridden 137 miles before reaching the foot of the mountain in the late afternoon. So they will be tired for the ascension, too.
Sunday’s stage — 150 miles including the final climb — is the longest of this Tour.
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“Ventoux is always scary,” said Garmin-Sharp rider David Millar, a veteran of 12 Tours. “It’s going to be horrible for everyone.”
One of the big questions is whether yellow-jersey holder Chris Froome of Sky Procycling will zoom or go boom on the climb, perhaps extending his race lead if he has a good day or losing it if he has a disastrous one.
The Briton is an excellent climber. The steepness and length of the Ventoux ascent should suit him. But because the climb is so tough, even top riders can lose bags of time if they wilt. Ventoux has the hardest rating for Tour climbs.
Froome is bracing for his main rivals, who need to make up lost time, to try to ride away from him. If they succeed, leaving him far behind, Froome’s Tour could be ruined. But they will be equally wary of him. If they tire too early and Froome then powers away, they might not catch him. Or Froome and his challengers, tired from recent exertions, could spend the ascent mainly eyeballing each other.
“A lot of people have reason to attack now. A lot of people spent energy in the last couple of days so it will be an interesting one,” said Froome, the Tour runner-up to Bradley Wiggins last year.
Saturday’s stage was a hilly 118.7-mile ride to Lyon. With the Tour protagonists saving themselves for Sunday, a group of 18 lower-ranked riders broke away. They included Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s Matteo Trentin, who timed his finish well to post the first Tour stage victory of his career.
With 14 of 21 stages completed, Froome’s closest pursuer is Belkin’s Bauke Mollema — a surprise because the Dutch rider has completed one Tour, finishing 69th in 2011 and abandoning on Stage 11 last year. He is 2 minutes, 28 seconds off the lead.
Alberto Contador, the 2007 and ’09 champion who was stripped of his 2010 victory for a failed doping test, is in third place, 2:45 behind Froome.
Team Saxo-Tinkoff’s Contador recalled the first time he climbed Ventoux “my heart almost came out of my mouth.”