The Tour de France peloton will seek to make the most of the plains and hills of the Aude on Saturday.
A formidable block of high mountain stages starting on Sunday is likely to decide who enters Paris with the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys on their backs.
The yellow jersey contenders will have to leave everything behind on the roads of the Pyrenees in stages 15-18. Tadej Pogačar sits atop a mammoth 5:18 lead, which means Jonas Vingegaard, Rigoberto Urán and Ineos Grenadiers will have to throw a whole assault if they want to have a chance to usurp the seat of the Slovenian on the throne of the Tour.
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Mark Cavendish will be in an equally important race when he hits the heights.
The Manxman won’t relax now that he has equalized the ‘Merckx mark’ of the Tour’s 34 stage wins. Deceuninck-Quick-Step mapped out stages 19 and 21 to give Cavendish a record 35th victory, and with it, his second Tour de France green jersey.
Cavendish currently holds a solid lead in the points competition against a shrinking field of fast men. But to secure the green jersey, he must beat the broom in the race through the mountains.
Cavendish survived the cut in the Alps by the narrowest margins. The consecutive days of Pyrenean fragmentation next week will bring a whole new level of suffering.
Pogacar prepares for the Pyrenean assault
Tour organizers chose the steep slopes and unruly peaks of the Pyrenees as the crescendo of this year’s race in what makes it a rare pivot away from its usual alpine conclusion.
The peloton will reach its culmination of the Tour during the opening Sunday in Andorra in a stage of several tens of kilometers at high altitude. A breakaway-style mountain stage follows Monday’s rest day before a formidable top-finish duo arrive on stages 17 and 18.
Pogacar showed a glimmer of weakness on the last climb of the Tour. The reigning champion was briefly left behind on Mont Ventoux, later pointing to the scorching heat of Provence as part of his loss.
– Tour de France ™ (@LeTour) July 7, 2021
Pogacar is hoping the notoriously hot sun in southwestern France doesn’t shake its acclimatized form in cooler weather over the next week or so. The 22-year-old also hinted on Thursday that he might not be continuing the fierce pace he set for himself when he built his almost overwhelming margin in the Alps.
“It’s better to ride defensively, we saw in the Ventoux that there are several very strong riders in the peloton,” he said.
“And anything can happen in the hot Pyrenees. If there is a very hot day, I can also be in pain. The time gap with second place is big so I don’t worry too much but still, you never know.
It will be up to Pogacar’s rivals to do the races in the mountains to come. Ineos Grenadiers hit the lead on the Ventoux double on Tuesday without a net gain. It was a tactic that confused some, but one that Carapaz et al. plans to follow.
“The Tour is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Carapaz. “The longer you stay in the top positions, the better your chances of long-term success.
“The team’s strategy is to use up and use up the opposition. This is why we went all the way to the Ventoux. Let’s see if in the next few days anyone is paying a price for what we’ve done.
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) July 7, 2021
Ineos Grenadiers’ wear game may have exposed a crack in Pogacar’s armor on Wednesday, but any fatigue felt by the yellow jersey on the “Giant of Provence” will be long in the rearview mirror when the race will arrive in Andorra on Sunday.
If Ineos Grenadiers wants to put Carapaz back in the running and give him time in the penultimate stage of the time trial, he needs to find six minutes – which will only come with repeated gains of several minutes.
Unlike Carapaz, podium contenders Vingegaard, Urán and Wilco Kelderman will not be entitled to a limousine ride through the Pyrenees. However, they may not fuel the great ambitions of the Ecuadorean and his winning team of the grand tour.
Vingegaard seems to be the only runner with the explosiveness to destabilize Pogačar after his lightning attack on the Ventoux. However, his Jumbo-Visma squad is lowering the expectations of the Tour rookie, and Vingegaard is playing him cool as well.
“It depends on how my legs feel,” he replied when asked if he would attack in the Pyrenees. “If I feel good I might have a stroke, but if not I just want to call and do my best. “
And finally, let’s not forget Nairo Quintana and his hunt for the iconic polka dot jersey.
The Colombian veteran currently holds a slim lead in the KoM competition and will go all-in to bring the peas back to Paris. Expect to see ‘Nairoman’ light up the breakaways and perhaps even attempt to repeat his 2018 summit victory atop the Col du Portet on Wednesday in his attempt to scoop up the mountain points he needs to fend off Michael Woods and Wout Poels.
Nairo on the attack, the guys from the GC all-in, Deceuninck-Quick-Step on the cutoff… the Pyrenees will be kingmakers this year.