It’s odd how much people become obsessed with who is and who isn’t a good descender, when I’d question just how much effect descending skills have on the race result. I know that they’re a dramatic part of the race, and sometimes an accident can really shake things up – I still think Beloki would have beaten Armstrong in 2003 if not for their accident – but the time that sometimes gets gained on them isn’t usually huge, especially compared to the sort of gap that can be attained with a big mountain ride or time trial.
And as we saw yesterday, even if you do pull off a great descent and open up a gap, you often end up isolated and trying to ride alone against a pack that’s chasing you down, losing all the gains you made. That’s what happened to Nibali yesterday, and it will be interesting to see what effect his exertions yesterday have on him today. There’s clearly a desire amongst the other leaders to attack Wiggins and Sky, but there’s also an element of them all watching each other, knowing that if they don’t break Wiggins and Froome, there’s not room for them all on the podium at the end of the race.
And while the leaders are battling, there’s the potential for interesting racing ahead of them. With lots of punchy riders effectively out of the competition for the yellow jersey, there’s the potential to see some great contests up front, like we saw yesterday, and now Voeckler’s got the polka dot jersey on, there’s always the possibility of him putting in one of his trademark Hero of France performances to try and keep hold of it.
There’s no messing about on today’s stage. Almost straight from the start in the Olympic town of ALbertville, it heads straight up to the Col de la Madeleine. The Madeleine’s a massive climb – 25km at 6% – but one where it’s more likely to see a breakaway form than to see the favourites begin any major attacks on each other. With two more big climbs to come, it’d take a Herculean performance for anyone to stay away that long with little support. Remember that even Andy Schleck waited until the penultimate climb of a long day last year before attacking. It will be a chance for some of the teams to slip riders into the breakaway group that might come in handy later on, so look out for various Liquigas, BMC, Lotto and possibly RadioShack riders getting ahead.
The fireworks are likely to start on the next climb, the Croix de Fer, with even the breakaway riders pushing hard towards the top of it. As well as 25 King of the Mountains points, there’s the €5000 Souvenir Henri Desgranges to be won for being the first rider over the top of the Tour’s highest point. There’s a maximum of 75 King of the Mountains points to be won today – 25 each on the two high climbs, 20 at the finish and 5 on the Col du Mollard that juts into the descent from the Croix de Fer – and Voeckler currently leads the competition with 28, so today could shape up that contest a lot.
I think there are two main places where attacks will be launched in the yellow jersey group today. Firstly, near the top of the Croix de Fer, looking to sneak over ahead and then race down, putting in maximum effort up the Mollard and then hoping to reach the final climb to La Toussuire with enough of an advantage and the energy to hold on. You can call it the Schleck option as it’s what he tried last year, forcing Cadel Evans to chase him all the way up the Galibier. It’s high-risk, but potentially high reward.
The other likely place is on the final ascent. It’s the more conventional place to attack, and perhaps the more likely to succeed as it’s easier for a rider to pace himself and expend what energy he has left up a single climb. It’s also likely to be the place by which Wiggins will find himself without any of his team to support him, making him much more vulnerable. Of course, if Wiggins was to find himself in real trouble while an attack goes up the road, then this could be the moment for Chris Froome to be released, which would be fascinating to watch.
There are likely to be lots of attacking attempts today, so it’s one to keep an eye on for a while, as the full story might take a while to become visible. Luckily, this is one stage with lots of TV coverage, with live pictures coming from the start of the stage. Both Eurosport and ITV4 start their coverage at noon.