Tour’s Longest Day Brings Sweeping Changes

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The stage following a rest day in the Tour de France can be a very difficult day in the saddle for some riders. Try as they might to keep their minds and bodies in the rhythm of the race, the rest day disrupts riders’ routines just enough to leave them stale and sluggish. Fortunately, Stage 9 was neither long nor very difficult, unlike tomorrow’s race.

Stage 10 of the 2004 Tour de France is nearly as long as the one-day spring classics and contains the first major climbs of the race. What’s more, the road surfaces in this part of France are considerably rougher than those the riders covered in the first week. Instead of gliding along pavement that is smooth as glass in northwestern France, the roads in the Massif Central and Pyrenees tend to be rougher tar-and-gravel surfaces. If you’re already having a hard day, these roads seem to suck every last bit of energy out of your legs, and if it gets hot, the roads get soft and it feels like you’re riding through peanut butter.

Today’s stage should have been the last time we see the entire peloton approaching the finish line en masse for a while. With nine categorized climbs in store for the riders tomorrow, the peloton is going to shatter into smaller groups. There is certain to be a long breakaway, and I expect Richard Virenque to spend most of the day off the front of the main field. As he has done in past years, he will want to cross the summits of tomorrow’s climbs first in order to gain the maximum number of points in the King of the Mountains competition. Since he’s no longer a serious threat for overall victory in the Tour de France, the pre-race favorites will most likely let him go.

It’s difficult to predict how riders will fare on the first day they have to tackle big climbs. Some of the men who have been involved in one or more crashes may be troubled with back pain or find their legs fail them when the road pitches towards the sky for several kilometers at a time. They won’t be able to hide in the draft as they have for the past several days, and by the end of the day, their weaknesses will be evident to everyone.

While some men will find tomorrow’s stage particularly difficult, the major pre-race favorites will spend the day testing their climbing form and keeping a watchful eye on one another. The course profile does not lend a significant advantage to any one of them, especially because the summit of the day’s final climb is a little more than 30 kilometers from the finish. Instead, the favorites will distance themselves from the majority of the peloton tomorrow, and wait until Friday and Saturday to launch decisive attacks against each other.