Riders bracing for ‘a monster stage’ in mountains
station des rousses, france — After nearly 900 miles in eight days of racing, the suffer-fest Tour de France now turns the pain dial up a notch or five. How does scaling half the height of Everest in one day sound?
That’s the monstrous challenge lurking Sunday for the 193 already tired and sunbaked riders who have made it this far.
For the moment, when race leader Chris Froome looks over his shoulder, he sees a gaggle of challengers hot on his wheels. Just 61 seconds separate him from 10th-place Rafal Majka of Poland. More dangerous contenders are closer still to the three-time Tour champion.
All that likely will change on the succession of seven climbs in eastern France’s Jura mountains — three of them so tough they defy categorization on cycling’s sliding scale of climbing toughness. “A monster stage” is how Froome described it, predicting the race standings will “get blown to pieces.”
Total elevation, when all the ascents are added together: 15,000 feet. That’s just shy of the height of western Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc, and about belly button-height on Everest.
The last “hors categorie” climb, Mont du Chat, is named after a cat but looks on Tour maps like a lion’s fang. With an average 10 percent gradient and even steeper than that in parts, it will push riders already exhausted by the previous six climbs to the very limit. Hearts pounding, legs burning, they will have no time to recover from its hairpin bends before plunging into more fast, twisting bends on the descent. Clear heads and quick reactions are a must: Not easy when body and brain are screaming for rest.
“That climb is savage,” Froome said. “I imagine it’s going to blow the general classification right open.”
Complicating matters: Saturday’s stage, also in the Jura mountains, was far from easy.
Froome’s teammates at Sky had to ride hard to make sure that riders who rode off at the front of the race, chasing the stage victory, didn’t get too far ahead and take the overall lead away from him. The question now is whether Sky will pay for the effort Sunday and run out of juice on the 112-mile Stage 9 from Nantua to Chambery in the Alps, arguably the most grueling of this Tour’s 21 stages.
“It was good to see them pull on the front,” said Australian Richie Porte of the rival BMC team, who is 39 seconds behind Froome overall, in fifth place. “I hope there’s some tired legs among them tomorrow.”
Grinding away from pursuers on a small mountain road more suited to goats than riders, Lilian Calmejane won Stage 8 to the Rousses ski station for his first victory in his first Tour.
Calmejane, riding for French team Direct Energie, fought cramps after breaking away on the final climb and hung on, tongue lolling, for victory in only the second visit by the Tour to the Rousses, with its cross-country ski trails through dense forests.
It was the second win at this Tour for a French rider, after Arnaud Demare’s on Stage 4.
Froome rode in 50 seconds after Calmejane — plenty close enough to retain the yellow jersey — in a group with all of the other top contenders for overall victory in Paris on July 23.
His day wasn’t without incident: On a downhill bend after the second of three rated climbs on the 116-mile stage from Dole, the Briton went into roadside gravel instead of cornering.
France’s Lilian Calmejane, right, won the eighth stage Saturday. He and the other 192 riders will have plenty of climbing to do Sunday.