An explosive introduction to the high mountains, writes Jack Houghton, but expect some caution from riders as they look ahead to more hard stages to come
"Geraint Thomas ([7.00]) is expected to finally rid himself of the annoyance of Julian Alaphilippe and claim the top-spot, ready to defend it all the way to Paris..."
What's the stage like?
When organisers announced the route for this year's Tour last October, they billed it as, "the Tour of the high peaks". They should perhaps have called it, "the Tour of the high peaks (all shoved into seven stages at the end)", but then the marketing folk would have probably vetoed that.
No matter the tag-line, though, we've now reached that point where the next seven stages will spend a lot of time at altitude, and unless you can sustain hardcore climbing efforts day-after-day, you're going to have a torrid time of it.
And it all kicks off with an explosively short stage - just 117.5km - which summits the Col du Soulor before riders face a 19km ascent of the iconic Tourmalet at an altitude of 2,115m. The difficulty of the final climb is more about its length than its steepness, which averages only 7.4%, although there are some steeper ramps in the final few kilometres, which could prove crucial.
Expect the GC teams to look to send riders off in breakaways on the Col du Soulor, with the intention being that they will be there to help their team leaders on the final ascent.
Who are the favourites?
This is an open stage, which is expected to be contested by the main Yellow Jersey contenders, but which could easily go the way of a solo rider or small breakaway.
Joint favourites are Thibaut Pinot ([7.00]), who is expected to want to redeem himself after his tactical error on Stage 10 saw him drop out of GC contention, and Geraint Thomas ([7.00]), who is expected to finally rid himself of the annoyance of Julian Alaphilippe and claim the top-spot, ready to defend it all the way to Paris.
Both riders are certainly capable of a win here, but neither are likely to be given much freedom. Pinot is only three minutes or so down in the GC and his moves will be marked; and Thomas, who won the similarly short stage to La Rosiere at last year's Tour, will be constantly harried, and perhaps hasn't got much motivation to go deep in order to win the stage, as a defensive strategy over these next few stages will likely see him claim and slowly extend a lead at the top of the classification.
Who are the most likely outsiders?
There is a line of thinking which says that the Colombian contingent - who are all adapted to high-altitude living and riding - will thrive on the first of this Tour's 2,000+m summit finishes. With that in mind, Egan Bernal ([8.00]), Nairo Quintana ([17.00]) and Rigoberto Uran ([40.00]) will be popular choices.
Bernal's odds look short. Not only is he inexperienced at this level, but there are fewer scenarios in which the chosen tactics of his team will lead Bernal to a stage win than there are for the other two. Quintana meanwhile has showed himself in improving form and has history on these short mountainous stages; and Uran, unlucky to find himself so far down the overall classification, will be keen to start a march towards a podium spot.
There are several other contenders, though. Mikel Landa ([10.00]) will be suited by the route and can work with Quintana to engineer a stage win between them, Romain Bardet ([30.00]) will be keen to remind the French viewing public that he is also in this year's Tour, and Vincenzo Nibali ([50.00]) is going to pop up at some point and win a stage, it's just hard to know when.
And, of course, we've now reached the point where we can no longer automatically discount Julian Alaphilippe ([15.00]) from this kind of stage. As each new challenge has come his way, he's exceeded expectations, and he might just do the same in the high mountains, too.
To small stakes, though, Rigoberto Uran is the choice.
What effect will the stage have on the overall markets?
It's the biggest day yet for the Yellow Jersey contenders and there will be some shuffling in the pecking order by day's end. Whether it's dramatic, or whether riders will be reluctant to be too aggressive with so many hard stages to come, is unclear.
*Odds correct at the time of writing
Back Rigoberto Uran @ [40.00]