The 98th Tour de France – week two will take the peloton into the mountains with three stages amid the high peaks of the Pyrenees, with a couple of chances for the sprinters to twitch their legs either side.
The second week of the 2011 Tour de France will see the end of the preliminary skirmishes. The battle for the overall win will start in earnest in the Pyrenees. Here, the riders face three tough days on the slopes of the some of the most famous climbs of the Tour. The Tourmalet, Aubisque, Luz Ardiden and Plateau de Beille all have to be tamed before the riders hit the flat again for a transition stage en route to week three and the Alps.
Stage Ten, Tuesday 12th July: Aurillac - Carmaux, 158km
A short stage to start the Tour's second week but one not without its challenges. Starting from Aurillac the route runs pretty much due south to Carmaux. The day's sprint comes early, after only 37.5km, the last 10km of the run to the sprint point being a gentle descent. The sprinters' teams within the peloton will be looking to keep the pace high early to prevent any breaks going away with the hope that their main man will be able to pick up maximum points towards the green jersey competition. Once the sprint is contested the riders are faced with the sort of rolling terrain that can easily sap the energy of anyone beginning to struggle after ten days of riding. Four categorised climbs must be tackled, the hardest of which is the category three Côte de Villefranche-de-Rouergue (4.1 km @ 5.9 %) which comes after 99.5km. After a final category four climb the run in to the finish is mainly downhill with just a couple kick ups. It's a stage that could see a breakaway succeed, so long as they time their moment right.
Wikipedia says...that in the past Carmaux has been famous for both coal mining and glass making.
Stage Eleven, Wednesday 13th July: Blaye les Mines - Lavaur, 167.5km
With the first of three days in the mountains to come tomorrow the organisers have been kind enough to throw in a stage that should see the peloton's fastmen licking their lips. It's certainly not pan flat but with just a couple of sprint stages remaining, this is one of the last opportunities for the sprinters so it's one they need to take. It's lumpy all the way but there are just two classified climbs. The category three Côte de Tonnac (3.6 km @ 4.9 %) comes early on in the stage, after just 28.5km whilst the category four Côte de Puylaurens (4.2 km @ 3.8 %) comes some 30km from the end. The last 16km are probably the flattest of the whole stage so expect the sprint trains to be forming and a mass dash for the line in Lavaur.
Wikipedia says...that the first building of Lavaur Cathedral took place in the 13th Century. Today it boasts an octagonal bell-tower.
Stage Twelve, Thursday 14th July: Cugnaux - Luz Ardiden, 211km
At last, after 11 stages, the real battle for yellow begins. Today, the riders enter the high mountains of the race for the first time. And it is quite an introduction. The first 120km will merely serve as a warm up act to the real deal that lies in the second half of the stage. The intermediate sprint comes after 119km, just before the start of the day's first climb of Hourquette d'Ancizan, meaning the sprinters can grab some points and then settle back in the autobus for the rest of the day. It's the first time that the category one Hourquette d'Ancizan has featured in the Tour, although it is an off-shoot of the regularly used Aspin. It tops out at 1538m, is 9.9 km long and averages 7.5 %, making it a tough proposition. Once off the climb the riders start going up again almost immediately on a mountain that really needs no introduction.
The Col du Tourmalet is of course a Tour legend and is one of the toughest climbs the race uses. This year the peloton climb the mountain's eastern side, taking the riders through the ski town of La Mongie on the way to the col. From this side the Tourmalet is 17.1 km long, and averages 7.3%, making it a perfect launch pad for an attack from the climbing specialists. After a dangerous 18km descent into Luz Saint Sauveur, the road ramps up again as the pack hit the final climb of the day and a summit finish at Luz Ardiden
The climb to Luz Ardiden is a touch over 13km long and averages 7.4% but has stretches as tough as 10%. It's a difficult climb and one which has passed into Tour legend as it was the scene of one of Lance Armstrong's most memorable moments when, in 2003, his handlebars got caught in a specator's bag causing the American to tumble to the ground just as his rivals were looking to pounce. That was the last time Luz Ardiden featured until this year and whilst the 2011 stage may not live up to the excitement of the 2003 vintage, it nevertheless should be one of the pivotal days of the race.
Wikipedia says...that near the top of the Col du Tourmalet, white-winged snowfinches nest in the ski towers.
Stage Thirteen, Friday 15th July: Pau - Lourdes, 152.5km
Three climbs feature on stage 13, although just one of them is of any real significance. The stage starts in Pau and heads to Lourdes via the steep but short Côte de Cuqueron (1.5 km @ 8.1%) and the category four Côte de Belair (1.0 km @ 8.4%). Then, after 95km, the climbing gets serious with the ascent of the Col d'Aubisque.
The Aubisque is 18km long and averages just over 7%, but its gradient varies sharply with stretches at over 10%. It's a very difficult climb but it is unlikely to have too much of an influence on the overall race. The summit comes over 40km from the stage finish which will serve to nullify its impact. From the top of the Aubisque it is pretty much a straight descent down into Lourdes and a flat finish. With another big day to come tomorrow it is likely that today will see the favourites more concerned with marking each other rather than trying to go on the attack.
Wikipedia says...that Lourdes' St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Church, which has five domes, was designed by Myroslav Nimciv. Inside the church was decorated in a byzantine style by artist Jerzy Nowosielski.
Stage Fourteen, Saturday 16th July: Saint Gaudens - Plateau de Beille, 168.5km
The last of the stages in the Pyrenees is one that could have a major say in the final battle for yellow. No fewer than six classified climbs lie in wait today, including a difficult summit finish on Plateau de Beille. The climbing starts right from the off with the difficult ascent of the second category Col de Portet-d'Aspet. At just over 4km the Portet-d'Aspet is not long but it has a leg burning average gradient of 9.7% and stretches at over 17%. It is a cruel introduction to what is going to be a truly arduous day.
From then on the climbs come thick and fast - at 62.5km the Col de la Core (14.1 km @ 5.7%, cat 1), at 94km the Col de Latrape (5.6 km @ 7.2%, cat 2), at 109km the Col d'Agnes (10.0 km @ 8.2%, - cat 1) and at 118km the Port de Lers (3.8 km @ 5.5% cat 3). Then comes the final piece of this tortuous day.
Relatively speaking Plateau de Beille is a recent addition to the Tour having made its first appearance in 1998. Whilst its gradient still varies it doesn't have the wild fluctuations of some other Pyrenean climbs, hovering between 7% and 9% for most of its 16km length. With so many climbs already in the legs, and with little chance for respite, only the Tour's true contenders and specialist climbers will be left at the front of the race on the final kilometres of Plateau de Beille. Today is a real opportunity to lay down a marker going into the final week in the Alps. Significant time could be won, or lost, today.
Wikipedia says...that Plateau de Beille has hosted a stage finish four times - 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2007. On each occasion the stage winner has gone on to win the overall race - Marco Pantani (1998), Lance Armstrong (2002 and 2004) and Alberto Contador (2007).
Stage Fifteen, Sunday 17th July: Limoux - Montpellier, 192.5km
For the sprinters the last three days have been all about survival, making sure they finish within the elimination time so that they can live to ride another day. They will be therefore be thankful that the high mountains are behind them, at least for a few days, and that today they at last have another chance to make their mark. From Limoux the stage takes the peloton through the sun-drenched south of France to Montpellier. It's flat, with just one category four climb on the route - the Côte de Villespassans - as the stage flirts with the Mediterranean without ever quite reaching it. It's definitely going to be hot, probably going to be windy and almost certainly going to end in a bunch sprint.
Wikipedia says...that Limoux is best known for a festival that it hosts every winter - the "fecas". It is conducted in the traditional language of the Lanquedoc region - Occitan.
And so ends the second week of the 2011 Tour. Be sure to check back soon for the Daily Peloton's preview to the third and final week of the race, when the Alps enter the fray.
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