Mountain highs? Five key stages in the hills where the Tour may be won… or lost

The 2019 Tour de France has been dubbed ‘one for the climbers’ with more climbing than ever, and even more notably, seven trips into the 2,000m+ ‘dangerzone’ and around 54,000m total climbing.

We take a look at five of the stages where a lot of that 54,000m will be amassed, and make some very ill-informed predictions:

Stage 6: Mulhouse – La Planche des Belles Filles

Although stage 5 contains a series of category 2 and 3 climbs in the final 70km, the flat finish makes it more likely a day for the breakaway or sprinters.

However, Stage 6 is a bona fide day for the grimpeurs and likely to see the first major GC shakeout.

With a leg-trembling seven categorised climbs through the Vosges and a summit finish on the Planche des Belles Filles – a short but at times eye-wateringly steep ascent with an all-new gravel finish (to appease the hipsters) – it will be well worth tuning in for to see the winners and losers of the day.

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It’s such a cliché that I have to say it: a GC contender won’t win the Tour here, but they sure could lose it.

And I bet of the large line-up of possible yellow-jersey wearers, at least one will suffer at the hands of the ‘board of beautiful women’.

Moment in time: Chris Froome (remember him?) took one of his first major victories here on stage 10 of the 2012 Tour. Teammate Bradley Wiggins came third, a symbol of the tension in the team that arose later in the race.

Stage 8: Macon – Saint Etienne

OK, so with no climbs over category 2, this stage through the Massif Central in southern central France is no true ‘high mountain’ stage, but with around 4000m of ascent over seven categorised climbs, the peloton will sure feel like they’ve raced one. 

The barrage of short, sharp climbs makes it one that’s set up for breakaways, surprises, and perhaps – ambushes.

The stage screams out prime hunting ground for a team that boasts a number of strong GC-ish riders to recoup any losses from the first week.

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Consider, for example, that by then Movistar might need to get their triumvirate of leaders up the GC, or if Rigoberto Uran of EF-Education First lacks the legs on the Planche de Belles Filles after his quiet season of racing.

This could be the opportunity for teams with strength in depth to post strong men up the road early in the day and pose the leader’s team some tricky tactical decisions.

Moment in time: “It was a stressful moment. I wasn’t sure if I’d get back on again. It was panic stations.” Chris Froome reflects on the moment he had a mechanical just after Ag2r launched an attack in the final 40km of 2017’s Massif Central stage.

It took a big effort from the Sky squad to keep Froome in yellow that day. 

Stage 14: Tarbes – Tourmalet

It’s nearly impossible due to the road infrastructure in the Pyrenees for the race to visit the area and not traverse the Tourmalet.

Well, Prudhomme does it in style this year with a summit finish on the mighty HC climb in a punchy 118km stage.

The brevity of the stage suggests the tour organisers are hoping for fireworks, but there is a real risk they could fizzle.

In all likelihood, the GC men will come to the base of the Tourmalet together, and at this point it could come down to team strength.

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The first half of this Western side of the Tourmalet is wide, draggy and straight, making it one for a Sky/Ineos-type train to control. It may come down to the steep, wild ramps of the climb’s final kilometres where the stage is won or lost. 

The summit finish will mark the race’s first voyage over 2,000m, and what unfolds could well be an indicator of form or weaknesses ahead of the final week’s succession of oxygen-deprived mountaintops.

Moment in time: The last summit finish victory on the Tourmalet was in 2010, and was won by Andy Schleck. The Luxembourger spent the final 5km of the ascent duking it out with Alberto Contador in a classic epic, misty day in the Pyrenees.

Stage 18: Embrun – Valloire

The Colombian GC contingent of Bernal, Uran and Quintana will be licking their lips when they line up for the start of this Alpine marathon.

At over 200km in length and with three trips over 2000m, those strong at altitude could do some serious damage. Likewise, a day as tough as this could see several GC contenders lose their legs and their slots in the top 10.

The peloton have the Vars, Izoard, and Galibier to ‘look forward’ to on a day that actually finishes with a descent, something that may add some spice to the mix that could otherwise be at risk of becoming a diesel contest.

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The final climb of the Galibier is preceded by the long drag up the Lautaret, a road that discourages attacks with its width, shallowness and tendency to draw a headwind.

However, the final stretches of the Galibier are super-tough, and if someone’s going to make a jump, it will have to be there – the final 10km or so of the descent to Valloire are shallow and straight, and anyone heading down it in a group will likely have to wait for a sprint in order to gain any ground on their opponents.

Moment in time: Primoz Roglic attacked at the summit of the Galibier in 2017 before showing the guts it takes to make it as a ski jumper (did you know he used to be a ski jumper?) in a daredevil descent down towards Serre Chevalier en route a breakthrough solo victory.

Stage 20: Albertville – Val Thorens

The final decisive stage of the tour before the promenade into Paris is surely going to see fireworks of some sort, right?

We hope so, and with early attacks being encouraged by the early position of the 20km haul up the Cormet de Roselend, it sets up the race for any last-gasp raids on podium positions.

However, if the GC men leave it late to try to stake their claim on any of the top slots, the monstrous 33.4km slog to the summit finish at Val Thorens may prove a tricky one to make major time gains.

Sure, it’s very long, but it is essentially five ramps of steady gradient that could allow a strong team to control the moves.

Moment in time: It’s been a full 25 years since Val Thorens featured as a summit finish, in a remarkable show of wheel-sucking by Nelson Rodriguez. The Colombian sat on rival Piotr Ugrumov’s wheel for the majority of the 33km climb before sneaking past for the win in the final stretch.

Main image by Alex Broadway and stage profiles, courtesy of ASO.

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