Vacansoleil-DCM Tour Recon
by Steve Chapin, PowerTap Director of Communications
If you think it sounds crazy to fly all the way to Southern France to check out one stage of the Tour de France, I wouldn't necessarily disagree. It's a long way to go, but the devil is certainly in the details here in the French Alps.
I flew into Geneva and drove down to Gap, France, to meet a couple members from Vacansoleil-DCM, along with Maurits Lammertink, who recently just finished the Giro. Gap will host the start of stage 18 - the Queen Stage - of this year's Tour, and will be critical for several reasons. Maurits was chosen by the team for the recon even though he won't be riding the Tour. He is meticulous to detail and race tactics, and will be able to share his thoughts and data with the team coaches, who will in turn develop the strategy for the stage. Equally important, with Maurits attending the Tour riders - such as Thomas de Gendt and Johnny Hoogerland - can continue to race and focus on reaching peak fitness, as we are now within 3 weeks of the races' start. Although there was certainly plenty of riding done during the recon (the stage is 172.5 km's and has 4 category climbs, plus ascends twice up Alpe d'Huez), the focus was not on riding per se.
The first concern was the Col de Manse. While only a category 2, the climb begins almost immediately, and our focus was on the few kilometers from Gap to the base of the climb. The riders are concerned there will be an immediate break and splintering of the peloton. Climbing almost 1,500' from the get-go after 17 days of racing can do that, and the strategy here will most likely be to place someone in the break and to keep the majority of the team focusing on protecting GC riders. We took notes on sections of the climb, the road conditions leading into and on the Manse, and Maurits' wattage output. During and after each section we stopped and took quick video to record Maurits' perspectives.
Next came the descent of the Manse, and on paper what appeared to be a long valley until we reached to Col d'Ornon. Again, we analyzed the descent of Manse and the climb and descent of d'Ornon. We looked at technical sections of road, wind conditions (what parts of the valley are prone to high winds, cross winds, etc.), feed locations (when would it be easiest to get bottles from the team car?), gear requirements, and expected power and KJ requirements. What shocked me was the absolute lack of flat roads. What looked relatively flat and easy on paper was extremely and relentlessly hilly.
Alpe d'Huez followed with no surprises there, and our real focus was on the climb to and descent of the Col de Sarenne. The Dauphine had taken the riders down the Sarenne, and there was vocal opposition to the safety of the descent (coincidentally, Tony Martin criticized it the same day of our recon here on Cyclingnews.com). My only disagreement with Tony's assessment is that, for the most part, riders will fall a LOT further than 30 meters if they go over the edge.
After the ride, we analyzed the data and all of our collective notes, and then sent it to coaches for further analysis and discussion with the riders. It might all seem a bit unnecessary, but we learned a lot about the stage, and this attention to detail could potentially lead to a stage win or moving up a couple positions on GC. At this level, every second counts, and no opportunities are left unexplored.
The simple prediction for the stage is that it will solidify the GC. Although the race may not be decided on Alpe d'Huez, stage 18 will surely have a significant impact. While there will still be two following mountain stages, only stage 20 - which ends atop the Hors Category Le Semnoz - will provide one final chance for a shake-up of the General Classification. For stage 18, we anticipate a fairly large and immediate break up the Col de Manse of 15 or so riders, comprised of opportunists vying for mountain points, the intermediate sprint, a potential stage win, and the glory of simply being in a break during the Tour de France. The group will fracture the first time up Alpe d'Huez, where the peloton will claw its way back as it rides at a tempo which will see the group shrink significantly. The second time up the Alpe the race will see the fireworks, and one lucky rider will go down in history books as a winner on one of the most famous cycling climbs in the word.
If Vacansoleil-DCM can put itself in a position to either take the stage or maintain GC, our recon trip will have more than been worth it. But I myself have another day before needing to drive back up to Geneva, so it's time for me to go try my hand on the Alpe.