Event organisers were expecting fireworks during the three 2014 Tour de France stages in the Pyrenees, and Tuesday's action didn't disappoint. Stage 17 on Wednesday is short but fierce, and with the race for yellow all but wrapped up, we should be in for the most open and attacking race of the Tour.
The riders will remain in mountainous terrain on Thursday, but with the top 10 riders keeping an eye on the time trial coming up, they'll prefer to conserve their energy.
No, Wednesday will give the likes of Tejay van Garderen and Bauke Mollema their best chance of moving up on the leaderboard, so fans better get ready for a glorious day of Tour de France action.
Date: Wednesday, 23 July
Distance: 124.5 km
Profile: Mountain (High)
TV Info and Live Stream: NBCSN (for U.S. viewers) and ITV4 (for U.K. viewers) will be broadcasting every stage of the 2014 Tour de France, with mobile coverage available via NBC Sports' Live Extra and the ITV Player app.
|6||Tejay van Garderen||United States||BMC Racing||+9:25|
|7||Leopold Konig||Czech Republic||NetApp||+9:32|
|8||Laurens ten Dam||Netherlands||Belkin||+11:12|
Starting in Saint-Gaudens, the peloton will be given a stretch of 40 kilometres to loosen their legs before they hit the high mountains. Three Category 1 climbs are followed by the final climb of the day, an uphill finish on the legendary slopes of Pla d'Adet.
In a normal year, this is what fans and pundits would describe as the "Queen Stage," the stage most likely to decide who would arrive in Paris wearing the yellow jersey. Vincenzo Nibali's stranglehold on the lead makes that nearly impossible however, and instead, we'll get to watch the rest of the top 10 jostle for the podium.
The full race profile, via Le Gruppetto:
The key to this stage is the lack of flat roads in between the Garonne and Pyrenees and the quick succession of three climbs before Pla d'Adet. While not the steepest or the longest, they will provide plenty of opportunities for riders to break for the polka-dot jersey.
The pace will likely be high on all three climbs, wearing the riders out before they start the climb to Pla d'Adet, a 10.2-kilometre slope of hors categorie.
Stage 17 is tailor-made for an early break. The opening 40 kilometres will give a breaking group the chance to establish itself and find a rhythm before it starts climbing.
With a full day of climbing on the schedule, the peloton will likely take things easy in the opening phase before exploding in the mountains. There's no need to attack—by keeping the pace high at the front of the pack, riders can set themselves up for a late jump on Pla d'Adet.
This all sounds like music to the ears of Nibali. The Italian doesn't have to give the fans one final reason to cheer. There's no need to take risks, and as long as he sticks to Alejandro Valverde for two more days, the 2014 Tour de France is his.
Don't think for a second Nibali isn't planning on attacking at Pla d'Adet, however. One final chance to prove his doubters he was the man to beat this year, even without Alberto Contador and Chris Froome? You bet he's going to take it.
The Italian is tired of answering the question whether his win would be devalued or not, as was evident in his answer to Cycling Weekly's Gregor Brown:
Why would it mean less? I won almost all the races where I stared last year, where Alberto Contador and Chris Froome were also racing. The only one I didn't race was the Tour. The season went perfectly last year with first in the Giro d'Italia and second in the Vuelta a Espana, I don't consider myself a step behind those riders. OK, maybe the others went strongly in the early part of the season, like in the Dauphine, but they are going slower now.
Early break or no, Nibali will be eying the final two or three kilometres of Pla d'Adet to make a statement, and the pack knows it.
Also keep an eye on some of the top climbers who might not like their chances in the time trial. Richie Porte knows he mainly has to concern himself with damage control, for example, as he'll make up time later in the week.
Valverde likely won't, and with Thibaut Pinot less than 30 seconds behind him, the Spaniard could benefit from a late attack.
The winner might still come from the early break, but the real fireworks will take place behind them, as the top contenders for the general classification go head-to-head on Wednesday.