Tour de France stage 18: the hairpin bends of Alpe d’Huez
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Thursday’s stage of the Tour de France promises to be epic as cyclists tackle a climb up the mighty Alpe d’Huez not once but twice, with storms forecast, in the most dramatic stage of this year's special centennial edition.
With two climbs of the mighty Alpe d'Huez in store, Thursday's 18th stage of the Tour de France has all the makings of an epic, as long as the weather is not too unkind.
The 172.5-kilometre ride from Gap north to the finish 1,850 metres up is the the most dramatic stage of this year's Tour, with three category-two climbs lying in wait as well as the double ascent of what is one of the most famous mountains in the history of the race.
“It’s the royal stage of the Tour,” Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck told FRANCE 24 before the beginning of the race.
“It’s a decisive stage, both exciting and difficult,” Colombia’s Nairo Quintana also told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday.
The first climb starts in Bourg d'Oisans and takes the peloton all the way up the 21 bends of the road to the summit, each one with a plaque containing the name of a former stage winner on the mountain.
However, instead of going all the way to the top, the riders will turn off early for a short descent before taking on a climb that has never featured in the Tour before, the category two Col de Sarenne.
Its summit is at just under 2,000 metres, but it is the hair-raising downhill section rather than the climb here which will have kept riders awake on Wednesday night.
As long as they survive that, they will go all the way up L'Alpe d'Huez this time, all 13.8km at an average gradient of 8.1 percent.
All of this will be played out to a backdrop of hundreds of thousands of fans who will line the road up the mountain, including huge numbers of Dutch, who always flock here when the Tour passes, thanks in large part to the country's proud tradition of success on the climb.
Three riders from the Netherlands have won on L'Alpe d'Huez twice, including Joop Zoetemelk, the last Dutchman to win the yellow jersey back in 1980.
On this occasion the Tour is Chris Froome's to lose, and he will be dreaming of recording a fourth stage win so far, while Alberto Contador tries desperately to close the gap.
However, race organisers will be desperately hoping that the weather does not put a spanner in the works – storms are forecast throughout the day in the French Alps and there have been rumours that the second climb of the Alpe may have to be cancelled.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)