Tour de France 2019 - Part 3

Stage 15: Limoux – Foix Prat d’Albis

  • Date: 21 July
  • Distance: 185km — Mountain
  • Did you know? Prat d’Albis has never been climbed by the race, continuing a search for new, untested climbs to showcase
  • The ones to watch: Dan Martin (Team UAE Emirates) loves the Pyrenees. This is a final climb he can get his teeth stuck into

Stage 15 highlights, times and route profile

  • 0km: Depart Limoux – 11:10
  • 60.5km: Cat 2 Col de Montségur climb – 12:47
  • 93.5km: Tarascon-sur-Ariége sprint – 13:35
  • 120.5km: Cat 1 Port de Lers climb – 14:29
  • 147km: Cat 1 Mur de Péguére climb – 15:18
  • 185.5km: Arrive in Foix Prat d’Albis – 16:23

Hot on the heels of the novelty of a Tourmalet finish comes a totally new climb, on Prat d’Albis, for what is, with close to 5,000m of climbing, the toughest stage of this year’s Pyrenees sojourn.

On any other day the soothing sound of cowbells would greet a cyclist at the summit of the second climb, the 11.4km Port de Lers – today the noise will be drowned out by the Tour de France circus. Soon after, the 9.3km Mur de Péguère gets steep – and narrow – towards its summit, with its final 3.5km between 11 and 13 percent.

It was just a couple of years ago that the Tour last came to the Péguère, as Warren ‘Wawa’ Barguil sealed his place in the affections of the French public by out-sprinting Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alberto Contador on Bastille Day in Foix.

Today, however, the peloton aren’t nearly done once they reach Foix; instead they must winch themselves up Prat d’Albis, a narrow, Vueltaesque dead-end road to seemingly nowhere, 800 metres further above the Ariège town.

Team Ineos, including Geraint Thomas and Wout Poels, recce’d the new climb in May, which is said to have terrific, far-reaching views on a good day. With a rest day tomorrow, and a 300km transfer to Nîmes, it’s time for the riders to leave everything on the road.

Stage 16: Nîmes – Nîmes

  • Date: 23 July
  • Distance: 177km — Flat
  • Did you know: Nîmes is another happy hunting ground of Mark Cavendish, and the site of his fourth stage win in 2008
  • The ones to watch: Dylan Groenewegen (Team Jumbo-Visma) to take another win before a torried Alpine mountain grind

Stage 16 highlights, times and route profile

  • 0km: Depart Nîmes – 12:30
  • 65km: Vallérargues sprint – 13:56
  • 96km: Cat 4 Côte de Saint-Jean-du-Pin climb – 14:38
  • 177km: Arrive in Nîmes – 16:26

It’s rather unusual for Tour de France host towns to get a start and finish of a road stage on the same day and it’s likely got something to do with the deal negotiated when Nîmes hosted the start of the Vuelta a España in 2017 (such deals often come as part of a package).

Yet the city’s association with the Tour goes back well over a century, hosting its first start and finish in 1905, the third edition.

Nîmes is a city of 150,000 people, sandwiched inland between the larger coastal cities of Montpellier and Marseille. It’s heralded as the ‘Rome of France’ , the ‘most Roman’ city outside of Italy and it’s easy to see why with its marvellous amphitheatre, the Arena of Nîmes.

The clockwise loop today sticks within the boundaries of the Gard department and serves as something of a solitary respite between an almost exclusive barrage of mountains that have passed in the Pyrenees and remain in the Alps.

It’s the final chance for the sprinters, or what remains of them if they haven’t succumbed to the brutal time cuts, before Paris, but again, it’s one of those ‘French flat’ stages, more rolling than pan flat.

There’s a short, sharp climb around 17km from the finish, but it shouldn’t pose an issue for even the most flat track of bullies.

Stage 17: Pont du Gard – Gap

  • Date: 24 July
  • Distance: 200km — Hilly
  • Did you know? French fave jean-François Bernard won his first stage in 1986 by over three minutes in a stage from Nîmes to Gap
  • The ones to watch: Simon Clarke (EF Education First) is enjoying his best season and might be let off the leash

Stage 17 highlights, times and route profile

  • 0km: Depart Pont du Gard – 11:40
  • 62km: Vaison-la-Romaine sprint – 13:09
  • 104.5km: Cat 4 Côte de la Rochette-du-Buis climb – 14:09
  • 191.5km: Cat 3 Col de la Sentinelle climb – 16:13
  • 200km: Arrive in Gap – 16:25

Today has solo move written all over it, as the peloton finally heads into the Alps ahead of three successive gruelling stages.

We begin at the Pont du Gard, a magnificent first century structure — France’s most-visited ancient monument — that was once the highest (48m) aqueduct of the Roman world, built to supply water to nearby Nîmes, then a hub of the empire.

It served as an aqueduct until the 6th century before becoming a tollgate in the Middle Ages and a road bridge from the 18th to 20th century. Now it’s been restored to its former glory, free of tyranny of motor vehicles.

As for the stage, the peloton climbs gradually over 70km to reach a height of 883m just after the half way point at the summit of the Col de Mévouillon. The course then plateaus somewhat for another 75km before the final challenge of the Col de la Sentinelle, a 5.2km 5.4 percent climb topping out 8.5km before the finish, with a descent into Gap punctuated by a couple of small rises.

The town often favours long-distance attacks, from Jean-François Bernard in 1986 to most recently, in 2015, Rubén Plaza, and with three huge stages on the trot starting tomorrow, the leaders will be happy to let unthreatening riders go to the finish.

Stage 18: Embrun – Valloire

  • Date: 25 July
  • Distance: 208km — Mountain
  • Did you know? The Galibier, so often the highest Tour climb, is 128m lower than the Co d’Iseran of tomorrow’s stage
  • The ones to watch: Nairo Quintana (Movistar), a native of high altitude in Colombia, often thrives on the long, towering climbs

Stage 18 highlights, times and route profile

  • 0km: Depart Embrun – 10:25
  • 13km: Côte des Damoiselles Coiffées cat. 3 climb – 10:47
  • 45km: Les Thuiles sprint – 11:34
  • 82.5km: Cat 1 Col de Vars climb – 12:45
  • 133km: HC Col d’Izoard – 14:12
  • 189km: HC Col du Galibier – 15:56
  • 208km: Arrive in Valloire – 16:17

When Christian Prudhomme declared at the race’s launch last October that this was the ‘highest Tour in history’, this is one of the stages that backs that claim up. We still think 1998’s race, that of the Festina drugs scandal, was the highest, but it depends on your definition of high.

Tomorrow’s stage actually sees the race go higher, over Europe’s highest pass (Col d’Iseran), but today has something unusual for the Tour – three increasingly higher climbs over the 2,000m mark.

First comes the tougher side of the Col de Vars from Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye (9.3km at 7.5 percent), moving swiftly onto the Col d’Izoard, home to some of the most dramatic scenes in the Alps – and the scene of so much dramatic racing.

On its last visit in 2017, it hosted its first-ever summit finish (Warren Barguil winning to complete his remarkable Tour), but today the race continues, following a familiar route down to Briançon, France’s highest city.

From there it’s a long, steady drag up the wide roads of the Col du Lauteret (2,058m), before a right-turn onto the early slopes of the imposing Galibier (2,642m).

Many of the main contenders would be grateful for a summit finish. Instead, the best descenders will seize upon the long 19km descent.

Stage 19: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne – Tignes

  • Date: 26 July
  • Distance: 126.5km — Mountain
  • Did you know? The first to the summit of the race (Col d’Iseran) wins the Souvenir Henri Desgrange – and €5,000 to boot!
  • The ones to watch: Colombian Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) often fares well at high altitude

Stage 19 route profile, highlights and times

  • 0km: Depart Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne – 12:55
  • 25km: Cat 3 Côte de Saint-André climb – 13:35
  • 38km: Cat 2 Montée d’Aussois climb – 14:01
  • 63.5km: Cat 3 Col de la Madeleine climb – 14:40
  • 68.5km: Bessans sprint – 14:48
  • 89km: HC Col de l’Iseran – 15:36
  • 124.5km: Cat 1 Montée de Tignesclimb – 16:32
  • 165.5km: Arrive in Tignes – 16:35

Today has the feel of a ramp test with near incessant climbing in one form or another, from the start in Saint- Jean-de-Maurienne (585m), all the way up to the summit of the Col d’Iseran (2,770m) – the highest mountain pass in Europe – 89km into the stage.

There’s nothing particular sinister about the 7.5 percent average gradient of the 12.9km Iseran, besides the toughest kilometre (10.2) being its penultimate.

Rather, it’s the towering altitude this late in the race that will be of most concern to the GC contenders. The Colombians tend to fare best, given their altitudinal heritage.

Despite its status as Europe’s highest pass, it’s infrequently employed – this is only its third appearance since 1963, and just the second time ever it’ll climb the south side from Bonneval-sur-Arc.

From the summit, there’s a 15km descent into the popular ski resort of Val d’Isere, then a further drop before a final ascent through the various towns of neighbouring Tignes, finishing at 2,113m – the fifth time in two days that the race has broken 2,000m.

The contenders for yellow will have to manage their resources wisely ahead of tomorrow.

Stage 20: Albertville – Val Thorens

  • Date: 27 July
  • Distance: 130km — Mountain
  • Did you know? The road to Val Thorens will be the seventh time the race has passed above 2,000m altitude this year
  • The ones to watch: The yellow jersey on the defensive, a minor contender to take the spoils – perhaps someone like Rigoberto Urán

Stage 20 highlights, times and route profile

  • 0km: Depart Albertville – 12:45
  • 11.5km: Villard-sur-Doron sprint – 13:03
  • 36km: Cat 1 Cormet de Roselend climb – 13:57
  • 75.5km: Cat 2 Côte de Longefoy climb – 14:55
  • 130km: Arrive in Val Thorens – 16:44

This is it. The final chance for the yellow jersey to hold their nerve, for his challengers to deliver a telling blow, for the also rans to salvage their race and for the remaining sprinters to simply survive one more day of toil before Paris. Everyone still in the race has something to play for.

What a way for mountain stages to bow out too. After the lovely Cormet de Roselend comes new kid on the block, the Côte de Longefoy (6.6km at 6.5 percent).

The meat in today’s sandwich, however, is the mammoth climb up to the Val Thorens ski resort, the fifth and final summit finish of the 2019 Tour de France. From Moutiers at 539m, Val Thorens sits at 2,365m (once again, we’re over 2000m) and when you take into account the four sections of descent you’re looking at, all done, 2,000m of elevation gain.

It’s a climb, like the similarly interminable Col de la Croix de Fer, where the average gradient of 5.5 percent over its 33.4km doesn’t begin to do it justice. While it only briefly gets into double digit gradients, strip out the descents and you’re staring at a sturdy 7 percent.

Riders of the 2019 Etape du Tour will have ridden this route six days earlier, the majority in twice the time as the predicted four hours of today’s winner, putting their efforts into some perspective.

Stage 21: Rambouillet — Paris Champs-Élysées

  • Date: 28 July
  • Distance: 128km — Flat
  • Did you know? Greg LeMond won the best Tour finish in 1989. He beat Laurent Fignon in the 24.5km time trial to leapfrog him
  • The ones to watch: Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) won last year here and has the engine to overcome the mountains

Stage 21 highlights, times and route profile

  • 0km: Depart Rambouillet – 17:10
  • 34km: Cat 4 Côte de Saint-Rémy-lés-Chevreuse climb – 18:12
  • 38km: Cat 4 Côte de Châteaufort climb – 18:18
  • 89.5km: Paris – Haut de Champs-Élysées sprint – 19:36
  • 128km: Arrive in Paris, Champs-Élysées – 20:19

One of these days, Christian Prudhomme, the race director, ought to keep the racing going through the final stage.

This Paris procession, where the yellow jersey isn’t attacked at any point in the stage, is a long-held tradition, but it turns what should be a showpiece occasion into a bit of a damp squib. Is that too harsh a view? Perhaps.

There is spectacle in the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées – a bucket list victory for all the top sprinters – and the recently introduced evening finish has added atmosphere into the final, but for many the race has already finished the day before.

The yellow jersey has already had their ‘winner’s’ press conference, allowing an early bath for many of the media (to be fair, they deserve it after three weeks of overlong days and unwashed clothes).

For those who do make it, the sprint is one of the best of the year, with the teams winding it up over eight laps of the Champs-Élysées. Surviving this far is an achievement for the pure sprinters and there was a time when they’d be voluntarily on the beach by now, such was their reluctance to suffer through the mountains.

But they get judged on results – and this is one their team managers and sponsors will have had marked for them since the start of the season.

- Bikeradar