One way or another, stage 18 of the 2019 Tour de France is likely to stick in the memory. At 208km in length, with three brutal climbs, a rapid descent into the finish at Valloire, temperatures which are once again expected to exceed 35C and one of the most open general classification contests in years, it has all the ingredients to deliver a famous day in the Alps.
After the stage 17 finish at Gap, the riders begin the queen stage of this Tour on the other side of Lake Serre-Poncon in the small town of Embrun, leaving which they will immediately encounter a category three climb, the taster before three enormous climbs which all rise above 2,000m. This is not a day for those who suffer at altitude.
First up is the category one Col de Vars, officially measured at 9.3km but with a long, slow drag uphill to its start point to extend the pain.
After rushing down the other side, riders will be faced with the hors categorie Col d’Izoard, a Tour de France classic with a small cycling museum at its summit. The Izoard bakes in the summer heat to resemble desert more than Alpine mountain. At an average of 7.3% it is an ever-growing steepness which makes it so gruelling to climb.
Down the other side to Briancon and the foot of the day’s final climb, the Col du Galibier. It is a long and painful 23km to the top at an average 5.1%, with the finish line waiting at the bottom of the descent into Valloire. It is likely to be a battle ground for the GC riders, spiced up by the race organisers’ move to add the carrot of bonus seconds for the first few to the top. In a close-fought race such as this one, small chunks of time matter.
How will the stage play out? There is certainly an opportunity for a breakaway with climbing legs to get clear over the first two climbs, but the chances are that such a brutal profile will break everyone but the very strongest riders at the top of the GC, leaving a real showdown of the best riders at the finale.
How Ineos play their two cards in Geraint Thomas, currently second, and Egan Bernal, who’s fifth, will be fascinating to watch. Thibaut Pinot (fourth) is likely to attack given his impressive displays in the Pyrenees. The young German Emanuel Buchmann (sixth) remains in the mix for the podium and is something of an unknown quantity, while Steven Kruijswijk (third) has a strong team around him.
Thomas and Bernal at Ineos and Kruijswijk at Jumbo-Visma will have to ride without their road captains Luke Rowe and Tony Martin, who came to blows yesterday. Neither Rowe nor Martin are climbers but the exit of two influential figures from this race is likely to have an effect as both teams lose an element of control in the intial forays.
Could it help the man in the yellow jersey? Julian Alaphilippe still has that minute and a half lead over his nearest rival, Thomas, but the expectation is that he loses it over the next day or two. He seems to have been written off by most experts but perhaps he can muster something spectacular in the Alps to cling on. They say the maillot jaune gives you wings, and you suspect Alaphilippe will wish it true on what will be unforgiving day in the mountains.
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