By David Hunter
Varennes Sur Allier – Croix de Chaubouret 204km
The Queen stage has arrived after 3 relaxing days for the bunch. The racing has been very boring so far, apart from the final 5km, but we should get a great day in the mountains.
The route is demanding with 5 cat 3 climbs, 2 cat 2 climbs and the big, cat 1 finish. Despite sounding very difficult, the other climbs aren’t really anything to write home about, so we should get a big bunch at the base of the Croix de Chaubouret.
10km at 6.7% is demanding, but the riders will like the steady gradients. This gives the teams the opportunity to ride at a steady tempo and gradually increase the pace. With the bunch being large at the foot of the climb it creates a different type of climb. With teammates, the GC boys will sit back and hide in the bunch. I don’t see the main action kicking off until we each the 7% sections. This cuts the climb down to 5km and also reduces the time gaps at the top.
Time to look at the contenders:-
AG2R – Peraud, Bardet
Lampre – Rui Costa, Valls
Movistar – Fernandez, I Izagirre, Intxausti
Astana – Aru, Fuglsang, Taaramae
BMC – Van Garderen, Dennis
Sky – Porte, Thomas, Roche
Giant – Barguil, Dumoulin
Europcar – Sicard
Orica – Simon Yates
Jumbo – Kelderman
Lotto – Wellens
Tinkoff – Majka, Kiserlovski
Etixx – Kwiatkowski, Bouet, Martin
Katusha – Chernetckii, Machado, Spilak
Cannondale Garmin – Talansky, Slagter
Bretagne – Sepulveda
This is a great line-up and with most teams having a few riders, team tactics will be important. Etixx will be happy that they don’t have to defend the yellow jersey. Instead, they will pack riders into the peloton and hope that Bouet, Golas and Martin last until the final kilometres. It would give Kwiatkowski a great chance of getting to the end. The other GC riders need to distance him as they’re worried what he could do in the final TT.
Sky and Richie Porte are the big favourites for the stage and race. They do have a strong team but not their usual mountain train. Their better climbers are in Italy. Wiggins is a little heavier than usual, so don’t expect him to hang around for long. In the past, Geraint Thomas has hit the front too early and made it easy for the other teams. I wonder if he’ll make the same mistake again? Porte is clearly in form but this is his first big mountain of the season. He hasn’t won a mountaintop finish since the 2013 Paris-Nice. This will be a big test to see if he’s ready to lead at the Giro.
Teejay Van Garderen is clearly in form, thanks to a great performance in Oman. He can rely upon help from Rohan Dennis, an excellent helper to have. Van Garderen was very attacking, on the Green Mountain, a trait we all like to see. The climb suits him and he is another strong contender for the win.
Rafael Valls beat him on the Green Mountain but after a bout of illness, he might not be team leader. Rui Costa should really be the man for Lampre and he’s, yet another rider, who should go well. He sometimes struggles in the three week Grand Tours, but one week races are perfect for him.
Talansky and Aru are the other big favourites but both arrive with no real racing in their legs and it’s difficult to predict how they’ll react to this test.
We do know how Rafal Majka will react ….. very well. Never underestimate the ability of the Pole. 2014 should have left all with the knowledge that he is one of the best climbers, in the whole peloton. After a poor prologue, he is 37 seconds down on GC. This might actually help him here, as he’s perceived as not being as good a TT rider as the others, Majka might just get a little freedom. If he does, it’s all over!
Movistar are spoiled for choice. They have 3 genuine contenders, they just need to decide who to pick. Intxausti was 3rd in Andalucia, so he’s the obvious choice. On a good day, he could do well. Keep an eye out for Ruben Fernandez. He’s a top talent and really starting to shine.
Wilco Kelderman had an excellent 2014. Remember him fighting with Contador and Froome in the Dauphine. He usually starts the season a little slowly, so I doubt he’ll be competing for the victory here but funnier things have happened!
Romain Bardet is the other main contender. He was on the attack today and is an aggressive rider. Like Majka, he could benefit from a little freedom and is just as dangerous.
Team tactics are going to be a nightmare. I don’t see any team being able or willing to dictate the pace, all the way up the climb. We should get attack, counter attack and more attacks. Playing it cool and picking the right moment will be crucial. For me, Majka is the best climber here and he wins.
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