Stage 18: Gap to Alpe d’Huez, 172.5km, high mountains
I hope you’ve booked the rest of the week off work because the next three mountain stages are going to be unmissable. Today’s stage takes the most iconic climb of the Tour de France and climbs it not once but twice. So it’s not 21 switchbacks, it’s 42 switchbacks – along with the other four climbs of the day.
It’s said that the Tour is won on Alpe d’Huez and we’ve seen that a few times – including in 2008 when Carlos Sastre went clear at the base of the climb while his teammates the Schleck brothers played cat-and-mouse with an isolated Cadel Evans. The stage starts in Gap, where the guys immediately hit the cat 2 climb of the Col de Manse (which we saw in stage 16). The descent is tricky but then the stage settles down until just after the intermediate sprint at 108km, just after the cat 2 Col d’Ornon.
After the sprint, the boys go straight into the first climb of the Alpe – this 12.3km climb with an average 8.4% gradient will suit Rodriguez or Contador if he can make his attack stick. We may not see a lot of attacks on this first climb of the Alpe, but if any GC contender shows a weakness in descending, the others might want to distance him early. Immediately after the summit of the Alpe, they climb just 3km (at a 7.8% gradient) to the top of the cat 2 Col de Sarenne before facing a very narrow, very steep, very technical descent. A few riders (Tony Martin for one) have called for it to be taken out as there’s no margin for error. It will be doubly bad – and the riders correspondingly cautious – if it rains this afternoon, as it is forecast to do. We will probably see a lot of the peloton not throwing caution to the wind as they head to the valley below and, honestly, who can blame them? As soon as they finish the descent, they go right back up Alpe d’Huez to the summit finish.
This could either be one of the best stages of the Tour ever or it could be a massive disappointment. The boys know what’s coming up in stages 19 and 20 and may hold something back. If that’s the case, we could have a damp squib of a stage – with a well-deserved winner plucked from the peloton and allowed to go away. Remember, it’s the riders who make the race. I really hope they make this one an epic.
Bit of trivia: This will be the 28th and 29th time the Tour has climbed Alpe d’Huez and fans will have been camping on the mountainside for days by the time the peloton hits the hairpins. Suffice it to say, drunk men in their underpants will be notably rambunctious.
Link: Official website
Header image: The 16th hairpin of Alpe d’Huez