Sending riders into the unknown was one of the goals Tour de France organizers had when they designed this year's route.
Sending riders into the unknown was one of the goals Tour de France organizers had when they designed this year’s route.
Unprecedented climbs, with record-setting steep slopes, and sprint stages that ended in surprising uphill drags, were among the novelties planners threw into the mix with the hope of boosting the suspense factor in the 99th Tour de France.
It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.
With four stages left, there is little still “unknown” about how the podium will look when riders reach the final sprint onto the Champs-Elysees July 22.
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Yellow jersey holder Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky have so dominated the Tour that the race’s top 10 has been all but set for the last six stages, ever since Cadel Evans cracked on the grueling ascent to the ski resort of La Toussuire.
Should Wiggins wear the yellow jersey into Paris, it will have been the longest stretch in yellow by a Tour winner since 1981, according to sports information service Infostrada.
Thursday’s stage, which ends at the Pyrenean ski resort Peyreagudes, is the last of the race’s mountaintop finishes. It is also likely the last chance for the surprise element to emerge in what has been a march to Paris by Wiggins.
It is the first time the Tour de France makes this climb, which takes riders up the reverse side of Peyresourde before a short descent and the steep final 1.8-mile ascent to Peyragudes, a first-category climb totaling 9.6 miles at 5.1 percent.
Sky manager Dave Brailsford refused to call the race over.
“We’re not thinking of Paris yet, we’re only thinking about tomorrow,” Brailsford said Wednesday. “Tomorrow’s a difficult day, we need to pay close attention to recovery tonight. We need to be fresh and ready for a difficult race, and we’ll see tomorrow night.”
Wiggins’ teammate Chris Froome, possibly the best climber in the race, said Wednesday’s Pyrenean “Circle of Death” stage over four major peaks was hard.
“It’s pretty stressful up on the climbs, paying attention to everything, and one wrong move, one drunk spectator steps out in front of you and that could be the end of your Tour,” Froome said after Wednesday’s finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon.
“It was pretty hard today, but I think people are holding back that extra five percent for tomorrow maybe,” Froome said.
Calling Wednesday a “pretty hard day” might win Froome the yellow jersey for understatements. Two beyond-category giants, including the nearly 2,100 meter Tourmalet followed by a pair of first category ascents, under a blazing sun, made Wednesday the hardest stage of the Tour, some riders said.
World champion Mark Cavendish was left in such a state after the race that, as he put it in a message on Twitter, “Today’s stage can be put into perspective by the fact that by the end I didn’t care that I was just puking over myself.”
For all the suffering endured Wednesday, the race’s overall top 10 had but a single change: Evans and US teammate Tejay van Garderen swapped positions after Evans again cracked on the day’s final climb and fell to 7th place overall, 8:06 behind Wiggins. Van Garderen rose to 6th, 7:55 back.
Wiggins still leads second-place Froome by 2:05 and third-place Vincenzo Nibali of Italy by 2:23, with only Thursday’s mountain stage and Saturday’s time trial likely to create any more time differences before the race ends.
France’s Thomas Voeckler dominated Wednesday’s 123-mile course from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon.
The Frenchman led a breakaway for his second stage victory of the Tour. He also won Stage 10, and has four in total.
Chris Anker Sorensen of Denmark was second, 1 minute, 40 seconds back. Gorka Izaguirre Insausti of Spain came third, 3:22 behind.