Tour de France Stage 15 Preview: Here Come the Big Mountains
Stage 15 – Céret to Andorra la Vielle – 191.3km – Sunday, July 11
The Tour often saves its most spectacular stages for Sundays—to maximise TV ratings—and Stage 15 should not disappoint. Taking the race into Andorra, a tiny principality nestled between France and Spain in the eastern Pyrenees, Stage 15 ends with four categorised climbs, including the highest summit in the entire 2021 Tour de France.
Beginning in Céret, the climbing begins right away, with a stair-step pair of uncategorised ascents that will prove a rough wake-up call to an already-tired peloton. Riders hoping to get into the day’s breakaway will warm up on trainers before the start of the stage, while the sprinters will be hoping they can hang with the peloton over the crest of the Col du Fourtou, 18.4km into the stage.
For Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-Quick Step), these 18km could be the most important kilometres of his entire Tour de France: if he’s dropped early and unable to rejoin the main peloton before the big climbs start, he might not make the time cut by the end of the stage.
A short descent to the valley will give everyone in the peloton a chance to catch their breath, but the route is mostly a gentle but steady uphill grind all the way to the Intermediate Sprint in Olette (KM 66.9). That leads the pack to the base of the day’s first major challenge, the Category 1 Montee de Mont-Louis (8.4km at 5.7%). For the Tour’s main contenders, this will serve as a warm-up for the bigger, tougher climbs still to come. For the rest, it might be the last time they see the main peloton that day.
Around 30km later, riders will tackle the Category 2 Col du Puymorens (5.8km at 4.7%), the last climb they’ll face before leaving France. It’s not particularly long or steep, but it brings the riders close to 2,000 meters above sea level, the point at which they really start to feel the altitude.
And it only gets worse, because after a paltry 2km descent from the top of this climb, the riders immediately begin the Category 1 Port d’Envalira (10.7km at 5.9%). At 2,408 meters, it’s the highest climb in the 2021 Tour de France (and the highest paved road in the Pyrenees). The first rider to the top wins the Souvenir Henri Desgrange, a €5,000 cash prize awarded annually to the first rider to crest the Tour’s highest summit. Riders who haven’t done a high altitude training camp before the Tour will really feel it on the upper slopes of the pass.
By this point, the leading peloton should be an elite group of General Classification contenders accompanied by only their best lieutenants, with perhaps a few out-of-contention climbers holding on for a chance to win the stage—if the breakaway gets caught before the final climb of the day. As for the breakaway, it’s probably shattered by this point, with only a handful of the group’s best riders still out front trying to survive to the finish.
The riders will then be firmly in Andorra, where a long descent takes them to the bottom of the day’s final challenge: the Category 1 Col de Beixalis (6.4km at 8.5%). The steepest ascent of the day, the climb’s toughest pitches come early, making it the perfect launchpad for a rider looking to win the stage and/or gain time on the Tour’s General Classification. And with 8, 5, and 2 bonus seconds available for the first three riders to the top, there’s an added incentive for the Tour’s GC contenders to attack—especially the cluster of riders currently separated by only a handful of seconds in second- through fourth-place overall.
From the summit, a fast 14km descent with a few tight hairpins takes the race right down to the 1km-to-go banner, leaving little time for re-grouping before the end of the stage. Minor gaps at the top of the final climb might be easy for the Tour’s best descenders to overcome (as we saw after the final ascent of Mont Ventoux on Wednesday’s Stage 11), but for the most part, whatever happens on the Col de Beixalis should hold to the line.
Even if a rider from the breakaway survives to win the stage, this is a major GC battleground, where the riders who still think they have a chance of getting closer to Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and the yellow jersey will need to put pressure on the 22-year-old and his team. And if he’s feeling good—or he senses weakness in his rivals—it’s a perfect opportunity for Pogačar to add to his advantage. The Slovenian has said he won’t hesitate to go on the attack in the Pyrenees if he feels the moment is right. After all, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
Riders to Watch
This one’s tough to call. With over 4,500m of elevation gain, there’s lots of climbing on tap for Stage 15, and we have a hard time seeing a rider (or riders) able to survive all the way to the finish after being in a breakaway for almost the entire stage. But there are several talented climbers well down the Tour’s General Classification, and if they’re able to get in the breakaway with a teammate able to do some work on their behalf during the first half of the stage, they might be able to save enough energy to hold-off the GC group on Stage’s 15 tough finale. Which leads us back to some riders we’ve tipped before.
Ireland’s Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) lives in Andorra and knows these roads well. After riding and winning a stage at the Giro d’Italia in May, he might have needed a bit more time to recover his form, which means he could be getting stronger as the Tour progresses. His teammate, Canada’s Mike Woods, is another good pick for Stage 15. One of the best pure climbers in the sport, the Canadian rode aggressively in the Alps and on Stage 14.
To our eyes, his form looks just a bit off his usual peak and his descending is—by WorldTour standards—sketchy enough that a stage win here is unlikely. But after Stage 14, he’s leading the KOM competition. If that’s his main target now, he’ll likely be out front again.
Trek-Segafredo won Stage 14 with Bauke Mollema, but we don’t expect them to let up. With the descent to the finish, Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali might like the look of this stage and head off the front, perhaps with a support rider like France’s Julian Bernard along to help. Nairo Quintana hasn’t had quite his usual formidable climbing ability this Tour. But if the Arkea-Samsic leader wants to get his polka-dot jersey back from Woods, he’ll need to go on the attack.
If the breakaway is unable to stave off the Tour’s GC contenders, Pogačar is always a good bet to try and win the stage, as is Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma); he’s the only rider able to make life hard—albeit only for a few minutes—for the Slovenian.
If Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (EF Education-Nippo) is serious about “not just riding for second-place overall” then he needs to attack soon. A talented descender, this could be his moment. Along with the (tiny) cracks Pogačar showed on Mont Ventoux, there are questions about how strong Pogačar’s UAE team is. This could be an opportunity for Richard Carapaz’s Ineos team to try to isolate Pogačar, but even in that situation, Pogačar can play rivals’ podium hopes off each other, letting them chase each other down.
When to Watch
Assuming GC riders don’t stage a bold, long-distance raid over the Envalira (big, big if, but would be super fun if it happens), the race is unlikely to explode until the final ascent of the day, the Category 1 Col de Beixalis, whose steepest pitches come near the foot of the climb. By the earliest estimate, the leaders should start the climb a little before 5pm, so tune in then to catch the action from there to the end of the stage.