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Neither stage 8 nor stage 9 of this year’s Tour de France finished uphill, but both were extremely challenging mountain stages for all involved. In the following article, former pro and Dig Deep Coaching co-founder Stephen Gallagher analyses the power data of riders at this year’s Tour de France to see what was involved in posting a good result on the two stages before the final rest day.
Stage 8 was what is known in cycling terms as a “medium mountain stage,” which really doesn’t reflect the difficulty nor the effort required. These stages tend to create aggressive racing with the opportunists trying to take the race on from early on. It was no surprise then that the opening kilometres of Stage 8 saw a flurry of attacks and aggressive racing from riders such as Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) and German champion Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The Opening Aggression
The effort in the first hour of racing is plain to see when we look at the data of Michael Valgren (Astana). Valgren was one of the major animators of the day and eventually finished in seventh pace.
His teammate, Dario Cataldo, was the fastest rider on this uncategorised climb that split the field after 38km of racing, making his way past struggling riders to the front of the race. Cataldo hit 422W (6.3 W/kg) for an impressive 11 minutes.
The bunch covered an impressive 47.3km for the first hour. Eventually the elastic snapped and a large group of around 50 riders broke clear after nearly 70km of racing. Here’s what it took German climber Emanuel Buchmann to make it into the front group:
Power-to-weight: 6.89 W/kg
Speed: 27.5 km/h
The riders settled into a steady rhythm on the first KOM. Soon after that the peloton starting to gain time again under the impetus of Team Sky.
Col de la Joux (7km at 4.5%)
Into the Mountains
With the pace increasing in the peloton, attacks started reducing the size of the lead group. Eventually, an elite group of 13 riders formed with roughly 95km to go. This group only stayed together for a short time before the remnants of the earlier break caught up at the bottom of the second Cat 2 climb. This set up the final showdown on the last two climbs of the day.
As they approached the Côte de Viry after 138km, the break had a lead of 2:25 to the Sky-led peloton. The high pace can be seen in the data of riders in the break and in the bunch chasing.
Côte de Viry (7.6km at 5.2%)
This climb caused the decisive split in the leading group with eight riders making the front, eventual stage winner Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) among them.
The final climb towards Station des Rousses was where the riders put it all on the line for the stage win and in the battle for the overall. With the peloton still only two minutes back, the winner was not guaranteed to come from the break. French sensation Calmejane took flight, leaving behind Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Nicolas Roche (BMC Racing), the latter soon being swept up by the field.
Even a bout of cramps in the closing 5km couldn’t stop Calmejane. We can see in the data below that no one dared attack in the peloton after what was a very hard stage. Power never got close to the 6 W/kg mark, instead hovering around the 5 to 5.5 W/kg for most of the climb.
Côte de la Combe de Laisia-Les Molunes (11.6km at 6.1%)
Over the top of the climb it was down to just two riders, Calmejane and Gesink. One minute behind was a group made up of many of the GC favourites and the strongest riders from the original break that were able to hang on with the GC contenders, Buchmann and Valgren among them.
Coming into the finish, it was a sprint for third place. Roman Kreuziger (Orica-Scott) had enough punch left to put in a 25-second effort at 802W (11.97 W/kg) which gave him fifth on the stage. This was matched by Valgren, who produced a 24-second, 757W effort after being out front for a long time.
With more than 4,000m of climbing and three HC-rated climbs, Stage 9 was billed by many as the queen stage of this year’s Tour. An early move of 38 riders went clear after only 7km of racing, when the road was already sloping uphill. This group was gradually narrowed down over the course of the stage until only a handful of riders remained.
Of those in the lead was French rider Warren Barguil (Sunweb). Barguil was in the lead all day but was caught with 7km to go by a select group of GC favourites. He rallied and then finished second, only losing the sprint to Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) by a matter of millimetres. The result was overshadowed by the crash of Richie Porte (BMC) who lost control on the dangerous descent of the Mont du Chat and had to leave the Tour.
As has been the case for nearly all of the 2017 Tour, attacks came thick and fast from the start. One of the first to attack was Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac) who made a massive effort to get clear. He produced all of his peak powers, from two seconds to 20 minutes, in the first 13km of racing:
2 second peak: 1240w, 14.60w/kg
1 minute peak: 698w, 9.95w/kg
20 minute peak: 443w, 5.68w/kg
The pressure stayed on over the first two climbs of the day, the Côte des Neyrolles and Col de Bérentin, without a descent in between.
Also in the break was Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal). Here’s what the Belgian managed in the long uphill start to the stage (10.4km at 5.4%):
Power-to-weight: 5.76 W/kg
Benoot’s normalised power of 350W (4.86 W/kg) over more than five hours is particularly impressive and shows just how hard stage 9 really was — a major test for everyone involved in the battle for both the stage win and the GC.
Hitting the HC Climbs
One of the main talking points early in the race was the tactics of Michael Matthews (Sunweb). The Australian got into the Stage 9 breakaway while his rival sprinters fell well behind. This was all with the intention of winning the intermediate sprint points after 126km, which he did.
With five Sunweb riders in the break it was down to them to do most of the work to keep the gap to the chasing peloton. Of those riders was the veteran Laurens ten Dam. On the Col de la Biche, at kilometre 67, the Dutchman set a ferocious pace that dropped many of the original escapees. The breakaway gained nearly three minutes on the field on this first major obstacle.
Col de la Biche (10.5km at 9%)
The effort required in the break for the first two hours is clearly visible in the data of van Baarle. From kilometre zero to the top of Col de la Biche van Baarle had a normalised power of 388W (4.94 W/kg). At this point he still had another 3.5 hours and 107km of racing still to do.
In the peloton the effort was kept consistent with Team Sky at the head of affairs. From the data of riders like Buchmann and Calmejane, we can see that a solid effort of around 5 W/kg was needed to stay in the peloton for the duration of the Col de la Biche climb.
The descent off this climb was tricky and the Ag2r team used their local knowledge to both attack the break and force a split in the peloton for Romain Bardet. The French GC hope flew downhill and the team created a gap for a short while.
Here’s Bardet data from his descent:
Average speed: 62.1km/h
Max speed: 82.1km/h
The riders had very little rest between the descent off the Col de la Biche and the start of the Grand Colombier. The pace was on in the front group and chasing bunch with five minutes separating the two. This climb saw both the break split up — thanks to the pace being set by Barguil and Benoot — and the peloton narrowed down under an increased tempo from Team Sky.
Barguil and Benoot set a strong pace of more than 5.5 W/kg for the full climb as the group around the yellow jersey started to slowly make up ground. In the meantime, ten Dam dropped back, having completed his work for Matthews. Ten Dam’s power on the climb shows how much time you lose by putting out just 0.5 W/kg less than your rivals.
Grand Colombier (8.15km at 10.1%):
The Grand Colombier was the warm up for what was set to be the final showdown on the steep Mont du Chat (8.7km at 10.1%). The break had split over the previous Colombier climb, but some riders regrouped on the valley road which saw them hit the last climb in a group of roughly 10.
The Final Showdown
The last climb of the day was, as predicted, hard — almost impossible to maintain any sort of rhythm. With riders such as Chris Froome riding a 32-tooth sprocket just to maintain power in the saddle, it was also going to be a survival of the fittest.
Buchmann again put in a fine performance, hitting the bottom of the Mont du Chat in the yellow jersey group. He put up a brave fight to finish in 24th position, still losing more than four minutes to the flying Froome group.
Mont du Chat (8.7km at 10.3%):
On the Mont du Chat, Buchmann still rode at 312W (5.03 W/kg) for 33:58. From his data, we can see that he avoided large spikes in power, instead trying to maintain a constant effort. Comparing his time to that of eventual second-place finisher placed Warren Barguil, we can see what a strong day the latter rider had.
Barguil rode the Mont du Chat in 31:00 (5.40 W/kg estimated), after a day on the attack — very impressive. The favourites went even faster uphill; Romain Bardet did the 8km-long main part of the climb in 29:25 (estimated 5.70 W/kg). He was part of the elite group of GC contenders who passed over the top of the climb just behind Barguil.
The incredibly difficult descent of Mont du Chat brought the end of Porte’s hopes for the Tour. Again, marvellous descender Bardet attacked on the way down and was only caught with 5km to go. He eventually finished in fourth place. Here’s his data from the Mont du Chat descent:
Average speed: 62.8km/h
Max speed: 86.8km/h
These are mind-boggling speeds, considering how narrow and windy the Mont du Chat descent is. After Bardet was caught it was all set for a sprint between the main GC contenders with Uran coming out as the stage winner in Chambéry.