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The Tour de France often throws up a debutant who challenges and upsets the perceived hierarchy in the peloton. This year is no exception, with the phenomenal talent that is Peter Sagan wearing the maillot vert and Fredrik Kessiakoff of Sweden leading the challenge for the polka dot jersey. Both untested in the ultimate stage race, these two gifted young riders have not been intimidated either by the aura that surrounds the Tour de France, nor the experienced heads around them.
There is one other debutant in this year’s race who will show a similar scant regard for reputations. Tomorrow the mighty Col du Grand Colombier will feature in the Tour de France for the very first time. This challenging climb will allow the grimpeurs to flex their sinewy muscles and coming halfway through the race, it has real potential to impact on who will stand on the top of the podium on July 22nd in Paris.
It is a debut that many feel is long overdue. At 1501 metres, the Col du Grand Colombier is not huge, but it is categorised as an HC climb and features regularly in the Criterium du Dauphiné and the Tour de l’Ain. Not to be confused with the more famous (but far easier) Col de la Colombière in the French Alps, the Grand Colombier is situated in the Jura Mountains to the north of the Lake Geneva, which run in an arc stretching northeast to Basel in Switzerland. From the Grand Colombier Massif there are views to the loftier peaks of the Alps to the South, dominated by Mount Blanc.
As a test of a cyclist, however, the Grand Colombier is not overshadowed by its more famous cousins to the south and many would argue that the climb is harder than the iconic Alpine passes like La Madeleine and la Croix Fer, both of which the riders will have to tackle the following day. The main difference is that the Grand Colombier stands alone, almost like Ventoux, whereas the dual demands of the Madeleine and the Croix Fer presents a cumulative test for the riders, both physically and mentally.
The riders in this year’s Tour can be thankful of one thing: Christian Prudhomme, the race’s general director, made a decision to ascend the Grand Colombier from the town of Culoz. It is not the hardest route to the Col. There are actually four routes up to the pass, the most brutal being the road from Artemare, a little west of Culoz, with gradients that ramp up to 22%.
The Culoz ascent is rated as the third hardest of the four and for the masochists out there, you can join an elite club if you attempt to climb all four routes in one day. If you succeed, you become a Master of the Confrérie des Fêlés du Grand Colombier, which literally translates as ‘The Brotherhood of the Fools of Grand Colombier’! That, in itself, says much about the nature of this Massif.
The Tour de France ascent of the Col du Grand Colombier will follow the D120 out of Culoz – the very same route that was used in the Criterium du Dauphiné in June. It will therefore be familiar to the two favourites to wear the maillot jaune in Paris, defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC) and Sky Procycling’s Bradley Wiggins. Once again, it may provide a spectacular backdrop to their growing rivalry.
The route out of Culoz will entail 11.37 miles/18.3km of climbing with an average gradient of 7.1%. This doesn’t, on paper, sound particularly demanding, but some gentler segments quickly bring the average gradient down. Don’t let those averages mislead you into thinking this is an easy ride. The gifted French climber, David Moncoutie (Cofidis) loves the Grand Colombier. Why? Because a rider of his ability thrives on the gradients that this mountain challenges the riders to tame. Needless to say, expect Moncoutie to be one of the riders involved in the inevitable breakaway group tomorrow.
The lower half is hardest, with two sections of around 14% and though there is a brief respite in the middle section the road does ramp up again towards the summit. As in the Dauphiné, the descent is followed by the Category 3 Col de Richemond, which Tour de France competitions director Jean-François Pescheux mischievously refers to as une petite bosse – ‘a small bump’. It’s worth noting that the ascent of the Grand Colombier begins 94 miles/151km after the start, whereas in the Dauphiné it came at 74 miles/118.5km. Not a substantial difference, but the pace, the psychological battles and the ultimate prize on offer is going to make for a far more intense and tactical stage.
If the ascent of the Col provides an opportunity for the pure climbers to breakaway, it is actually the descent of the Grand Colombier by the main field that may define the final standing of this year’s race.
In Stage 5 of the Dauphiné, the Grand Colombier proved to be a pivotal moment in the race. The climb is hard enough to cause decisive gaps, but Cadel Evans chose to attack the race leader, Bradley Wiggins, not on the ascent . . . but on the descent. Evans, whose cycling career is rooted in mountain biking, knew that his bike handling skills would be superior to those of Wiggins on the fast, technical descent. His move, aided by his BMC team mates and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas Cannondale) was tactically astute and immediately put Sky Procycling on the defensive. They had no option but to close the move down, which they did, catching the Australian on the Col du Richemond – Wiggins himself putting an end to the mind games when he placed himself firmly on the wheel of his rival.
Sky will be alert to any similar move tomorrow. If, however, Evans and his BMC team can dictate the pace of the ascent (and remember that Sky have been weakened by the early loss of their Belarusian rider, Kanstantsin Siutsou) then he can bring his descending skills to the fore as they pass the summit. If Sky fail to bridge that gap, then the race could be blown apart. As the Tour heads south to the lofty peaks of the Alps and the Pyrenees Evans could not only have a time advantage over Wiggins, but also a huge psychological one too. That is why this stage holds such fascination and expectancy.
OK, the Grand Colombier could also prove to be an absolute dud! It’s impact on the final GC standings may not even register, but if some riders have lost time on the previous stage (the first of the two individual time trials) then the Grand Colombier offers an immediate opportunity for them to win back some precious seconds. Frank Schleck (Radioshack Nissan) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) for example, may use the Grand Colombier to regain some time lost to their rivals.
The announcement by ASO in October of last year that the Col du Grand Colombier would be embraced by the Tour de France for the first time ever was greeted with immediate excitement. There is much hype surrounding its debut in the race and like Peter Sagan, it should not disappoint.