STATION DES ROUSSES, FRANCE - After 1,400 kilometers (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 tired, 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 heels. Just 61 seconds separate him from 10th-placed Rafal Majka of Poland. More dangerous contenders are closer still to the three-time Tour champion.
Climbs defy categorization
All that will likely change on the succession of seven climbs in eastern France’s Jura mountains Sunday — 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: 4,600 meters (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, may be 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 181.5-kilometer (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.
Froome’s day wasn’t without incident: On a downhill, right-hand bend after the second of three rated climbs on the 187.5 kilometer (116-mile) stage from Dole, the Briton went into roadside gravel instead of cornering. Froome stayed on his bike and quickly recovered. But teammate Geraint Thomas went over roadside barriers. Thomas quickly rejoined the race, and Froome said his teammate was uninjured.
The corner “sprang up on us a little bit,” Froome said. “One moment you’re in control, the next thing you’re in a ditch.”
Calmejane held off Dutch rider Robert Gesink, hot on his heels, on the final climb and rolling finish. Cramping from his effort, Calmejane had to slow and rise off his saddle to stretch his legs in the final section and then gritted his teeth and pedaled onward to the line.
“I gave myself a huge fright,” Calmejane said of his cramps. “It would have been so sad to lose the stage like that.”
Gesink, of the Netherlands’ Lotto-Jumbo team, rode in 37 seconds after Calmejane. French rider Guillaume Martin placed third on the stage, another 13 seconds back.
By being the first rider to scale the day’s last climb, Calmejane enjoyed the added bonus of picking up enough points to take the polka-dot jersey, awarded for points collected on climbs, off the shoulders of Italian Fabio Aru.
“Winning alone like that is incredible,” said Calmejane, who also won a stage at his first Grand Tour, the Spanish Vuelta, last year. “It’s everything I dreamed of.”