Bilbao > Bilbao 182km
It’s time to get the 2023 Tour de France started. The peloton is in the Basque Country, a place where people are fanatical about their cycling. The crowds will be immense, the atmosphere electric, and the racing should match it. There’s no boring sprint or TT to start with, we’re straight into Basque Country climbs. The riders are faced with a hilly stage, with a wall climb near the finish, but will the GC men fight it out for the first yellow jersey?
Cloudy, but it should stay dry.
Côte de Vivero marks the start of the finale of the stage. It’s a cat 2 climb, 4.4km at 7%, and promises attacks. The approach will remind you of Milano-Sanremo and the run for the Poggio, it’s going to be crazy fast as everyone knows positioning will be crucial with the initial slopes going over 10%. From the crest there’s 27km to go, the first 2.5km of this is a horrible false flat, before a fast descent.
Côte de Pike (Pike Bidea) is the main event of the day, 2km at 9.4%, with a maximum of 18.8%. It’s the type of wall climb you regularly see in this part of the world, it’s used in the Getxo race, I can’t wait to see it in the biggest race in the world. It’s horribly steep, and from the crest there’s just 9.5km to go.
The finish isn’t flat either, it’s a rather grippy looking drag up to the line. Those without a good sprint could lose a few seconds in the final 200m.
Normally, the break rolls off the front in the opening Tour stage, but not this time round, it has a better than usual chance of going all the way to the line. There are two climbs in the opening 15km, which is perfect for puncheurs who want to escape, I wonder if any team will try to control the opening kilometres and try to install a bit of order to proceedings. Jumbo-Visma and Alpecin-Deceuninck will have eyes on this stage, controlling the early kilometres is vital to ensuring they don’t have to use up too many riders in the chase, especially if you are Jumbo-Visma.
The pace throughout the day will be high, this is the opening stage of the Tour de France after all, which will make it hard for the break to win. The key point for me is the Vivero climb, this is where van der Poel and Van Aert are likely to attack. The reason they’ll go here is the Pike climb is too hard for them to stay with Pogačar and Vingegaard, if they want to win the stage they need to attack earlier. Vivero is still a tough climb, even for them, but it’s the perfect launchpad for non-GC riders. Remember, a grand tour is all about carefully managing your resources, especially for GC riders, but the lure of the yellow jersey could tease a few in to attacking and throwing caution to the wind. If a perceived threat attacks, UAE and Jumbo-Visma will have to respond, it really is a beautifully designed stage.
If the attackers don’t manage to escape the bunch before Pike Bidea, then it’s going to be our first instalment of Pogačar v Vingegaard. If riders are already up the road, I doubt if either rider will throw in a big move, there’s no point if the yellow jersey isn’t up for grabs.
What about the Basque riders? Pello Bilbao will have his eyes on this stage, winning on home roads would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Bahrain isn’t strong enough to chase down the likes of WVA and MVDP, if Bilbao wants to win this stage, he needs to follow their attacks on the Vivero climb, but will that spark a chase from other GC teams? He won’t care, this is his chance to wear the yellow jersey in Bilbao, he must go with the early moves.
The finale to the stage is a little like stage 3 in 2019, where Alaphilippe attacked from the GC group and the main GC contenders either couldn’t or chose not to follow him. Everyone will know what’s coming on the Vivero climb, but that doesn’t mean you can follow or stop it. The difference compared to 2019 is the distance from home, I would expect a small group to go clear at this point and stay away until the end, this group should contain some of the finest bike riders on the planet, but will UAE want to try and chase it down for Pogačar? Don’t be fooled by all the ‘too early to take yellow’ nonsense, the guy is a born winner who loves nothing better than winning bike races.
Another possibility is everyone waiting until Pike Bidea. For the likes of Van Aert and van der Poel this would be a big mistake, but maybe the pace will be too high on Vivero to attack. If the race is all together at this point, we’ll see the GC riders come out to play and the climb will be too hard for the puncheurs, even Van Aert.
The late attack option on the Vivero climb is the tactic I see van der Poel employ, but you can’t write off it being a GC day, it really depends on the attitude of UAE and Jumbo-Visma. Whatever happens, it’s going to be fucking brilliant.
Tadej Pogačar – will he fancy a crack at yellow? Of the GC riders, he’s got the best finish, the uphill rise to the line is perfect for him. UAE have a strong enough team to control the final two climbs and set up a GC sprint, but do they want to use up energy for the sake of a stage win? If Pogačar launches a huge attack on Pike Bidea, he could drop most of his rivals, but I’m not so sure about Vingegaard. If they go solo, Vingegaard might not work with him, making the attack pointless, but imagine if he managed to drop him. That would be a huge psychological blow so early in the race, but I’m not sure it’s likely.
Jonas Vingegaard – doesn’t have to do anything silly, just follow any attacks that come from Pogačar. Will Jumbo-Visma attack and try to drop Pogačar? He doesn’t have much racing in his legs, and they might sense a chance of striking early, but that’s risky. It will also depend on where Wout is at that point, if he’s up the road then don’t expect attacks from Vingegaard.
Wout Van Aert – this is a big chance to move into the yellow jersey, something he did last year, but Pike Bidea will be a huge challenge for him. The final kilometre of the climb averages 12.4%, there’s no guarantee he can be the best on that type of hill. Okay, last year he dropped all the GC riders on the final climb in the Calais stage, but that was only 1km at 7.2%, this is a different kettle of fish. The Vivero climb is good for him, but his chances of winning the stage depends on who manages to go with him, he’ll be a little worried if a climber manages to go with him, but he’ll still go for it. If he waits for Pike Bidea, he’s going to find it hard to hold on, and there’s not much road to come back to the front group before the final kilometre.
Mathieu van der Poel – yeah, he won on Mûr de Bretagne, but that is 2km at 6.9%, nothing like the hills in this stage. If he wins this stage, he’ll have to be climbing better than ever before, which is possible. The problem could well be Van Aert, over the last couple of years he’s been much better at climbing but van der Poel’s coach has said he’s been producing numbers they’ve never seen before, so it’s game on!
Tom Pidcock – can he follow the best on the climbs? If on top form, he can, but I’m not sure he’ll currently has those legs.
Julian Alaphilippe – another who doesn’t seem to have the form required to win, but I hope I’m wrong. Julian loves this part of the world; he’ll be dreaming of yellow.
Pello Bilbao – what a story it would be if he won, I’m sure the headline writers would have a field day. I hope he attacks from distance, waiting until the end would be a mistake with Pogačar and Vingegaard likely to be too strong for him.
Mattias Skjelmose – comes into the Tour as one of the best riders in the world. He won a stage and the GC in Tour de Suisse and followed that up by winning the Danish Road Race, he would have probably won the ITT too had it not been for a mechanical. The young rider has it all in front of him, he could become one of the greats of the sport. He can climb, TT and has an explosive sprint, Lidl – Trek, have a superstar just about to hit the big time. This is a good stage for him, but will he wait and try to stay with Pogačar and Vingegaard, or attack early?
Michael Woods – going very well just now, and he loves double-digit gradients.
Omar Fraile – bet your hat on him being in the break, he’d love to be in the KOM jersey at the end of the day and guarantee himself a trip to the podium. The problem is that the Vivero climb is a cat 2, which means he’d need to take points on it to ensure he’s in polka dots.
Giulio Ciccone – won the final stage at the Dauphiné, he’d love to start this race with a stage win and a yellow jersey. He won’t beat Pogačar and Vingegaard, so he needs to attack from distance.
Rui Costa – form is currently very good; he’ll be among several riders looking to attack from distance.
Matej Mohorič – another with good form, and that includes on double-digit gradients. The issue could be Bilbao, it all depends on whether Bahrain ride for him.
This is very hard to call.
The more I look at Pike Bidea, including rewatching the 2022 edition of Getxo, the more I think it’s too hard for Van Aert and van der Poel. I still think someone will attack on the Vivero climb and see what happens, the success of such a move depends on who is in the group. Behind them, UAE will have to decide if they want to go all in for the stage win, it’s not the most difficult stage for them to control. Is it too early for Pogačar to take yellow? I’m not sure his mind works that way.
I’ll take a win for Tadej Pogačar.