Stage 7 loomed at the start of the race as the hardest stage, and it will be a formidable challenge for the riders, even if Stage 6 proves to be the most decisive for the GC. A flat start to the race is punctuated by one sharp climb, and the early break of the day should already be established by the time the first of 5 category 1 climbs is reached 27.5 kms in. From there on, there is very little in the way of flat road, and it will be up and down for the riders for most of the rest of the way. The Col de Tamie (8.5 kms, 6.4%) is first of the agenda, followed by the brutal Col de la Forclaz (8.1 kms, 7.8%), which has a deceptive overall gradient as it contains downhill sections. A quick descent from there leads into 15 kms of rolling terrain before it is back to the climbing, this time it is the Col de la Croix Fry (11.2 kms, 7%), after which there is a short descent straight into the Col des Aravis (4.3 kms, 5.8%). It is easier from there into the final two tests of the race, with false flats, rolling terrain and descending on the cards for the next 40 kms. The final two climbs (shown below) are brutal, and will produce some big gaps even amongst the top climbers. The Cote des Amerandes (2.7 kms 11.2%) earns a Category 1 classification despite being very short, and it is only a brief respite that the riders get before there are on the foot of the final climb of the day, the Saint-Gervais Le Bettex (7 kms, 7.1%), although again that average gradient is deceptive, as it has easier sections at the start, and the final 4 kms average 8.5%.
The weather should be the opposite to yesterday, fine and pretty hot, with very little wind to speak of, and whereas the likes of Nibali and Gallopin shone yesterday in the poor conditions, it should be Van Garderen and Rodriguez that are to the front today.
In the past Sky has targeted the biggest mountain stage of the Dauphine to tune up their 'mountain train' and their lead rider for the Tour, and it would be surprising if they didn't do the same again today. It will be tough terrain to control, and that will likely see a lot of competition to get into the breakaway, but after the high drama of yesterday, I would expect Astana and Lampre-Merida to keep a tight rein on any GC contenders trying to get into moves. Add to that Sky's likely presence on the front of the climbs, and it seems unlikely that we will see the re-occurrence of the particular thrills of Stage 6. Of course, this stage should have thrills of its own, it is the hardest summit finish in the race, has the most category 1 climbs and the most metres of altitude gained overall. It will only be the top climbers that triumph at the end of a stage this tough.
The two final climbs are where I would expect to see most of the fireworks on this stage, the brutally hard Cote des Amerands will thin out the field to all but maybe the 10(ish?) best climbers, and the flat/descent section after that may be an opportunity for one in that group that is down on GC to anticipate the likes of Froome and Van Garderen and sneak up the road before the climbing starts again. It is also relatively easy at the base of the climb, and the real difference between the top guys will be made in the last 4-6 kms, and there may be a re-joining of riders from behind up until that point, as there are easier sections of the road in there.
I think a lot of how the action plays out will come down to the strength of the Sky squad. If they can thin out the bunch and still have a rider or two in support of Froome, then it will be very hard for riders to catch back on and for also tricky riders present in the front group to attack on the easier sections. That would put it in favour of a Froome, Van Garderen, Simon Yates or a Benat Intxausti victory, who are looking like the top climbers at the moment.
Vincenzo Nibali must have used a lot of energy out on the road, and I imagine that he, Valverde and Costa will be feeling the effects of all the effort they put in, particularly when it comes to facing the likes of Froome, who sat on wheels all day. Of course, all three of them have formidable powers of recovery, but when they aren't at full form I think that this long break will have taken it out of them.
That makes Chris Froome the big favourite for this stage, as I said above, it was no doubt circled as his big objective for the race (along with the overall win), and it represents his best chance to get a stage win. He will appreciate the really tough gradients, as well as the overall amount of climbing on the stage, and he has the strongest team to work for him. The final run to the line is more about climbing ability than having a fast finish, unlike most of the previous stages, and that definitely suits the Brit as well.
Tejay Van Garderen proved to be a canny customer on Stage 5, where he let Froome make his attack, staying at his own level, before catching back on and passing him before the finish to take 2nd on the stage, as well as the leader's jersey. He looks to be climbing really well at the moment, he maybe won't be the best on this stage, with it's tough, variable gradients. He shouldn't be far off with the form he is currently displaying though. Also to his advantage will be the weather, the American has done some of his best performances on hot days, and that might just give him the edge he needs on his rivals.
Benat Intxausti came off a disappointing Giro, where he was very inconsistent, but he seems to have some very good legs here, and looks to be only just off Froome and Van Garderen in Stage 5, and was there again in Stage 6, this time between the pair. He'll be very keen to show that he can be one of the best in the peleton and he does actually have an advantage on Froome at the moment, so he may have a good chance to take on the leader's jersey and perhaps have a good chance at winning the race with only one stage remaining.
Another with a chance at the overall victory is British youngster Simon Yates, who will questioning whether the decision to drop back from the breakaway move yesterday was worth it, as he would have taken the leader's jersey if he had stayed with it. He did jump away from the peleton to take 5th on the day, and move into the young rider's jersey, but Stage 7 is the big day for the GC, and he will want to have kept some energy in the bank for this stage. He won't have much support for this one, Adam Yates may be the only one to stay with his brother through the middle point of this stage.
Joaquim Rodriguez has been riding surprisingly well in this Dauphine, and looks like he will be in superb form for the Tour de France. His DS has said that he hasn't got the acceleration yet to follow the favourites, but he will add that in the final weeks of training, and from a fitness standpoint he looks to be going very well. I don't expect him to win the stage with that in mind, but he should be right up there until the final moves of the day are made.
Roman Bardet has been riding very well in this race, particularly impressive was the way he came back from his crash on a descent to struggle to a small time loss on the group he was with. With crashes, it can often be the worst effects are realised after the body has cooled down, and Bardet may be feeling significantly worse on this stage. If he has recovered, he will be right up there, as he has shown that he really is a top climber.
Daniel Martin looks to be in some good form at the moment, but the high mountains have always been the big test for the Irishman, and he may struggle to stay with the big guys today. On the other hand, if he can stay in touch, it says very good things for his Tour de France options. The other rider for Cannondale-Garmin is Andrew Talansky, the defending champion, has also been climbing well to date, but you feel that he is right at the limit of his ability here, whereas others look to have more in reserve than the plucky American.
Not a contender, except from the breakaway, but David de la Cruz looks to be delivering on the ability that he has, admittedly he is someway down the standings, but he has been riding good position in the front group for as long as possible, and looks like he might have taken a step in his development as a pro rider. He will be one to watch in future races.
It has been my opinion that favourites often don't win mainly because they are favourites, and every other team on the day revolves their tactics around beating them, but I don't see how Chris Froome can be stopped from winning this stage. His team should be strong enough to control any (normal) breakaway that forms and drive Froome well into the final climb, and he'll have the strength to take it from there.