WHERE ARE WE?
In the heart of the Alps, for one of the two hardest stages of the entire Tour. Albertville is a picturesque tourist town surrounded by high mountains. La Toussuire is a ski station with a dubious place in Tour history: when the race visited in 2006, Michael Rasmussen won the stage (ahem!), and Floyd Landis famously cracked (aha!), before his miraculous recovery and attack to Morzine the next day (oho!).

WHAT’S ON THE ROUTE?
The more we look at it, the more we realise what a classic stage this could be. Mountains can easily be nullified in the valley roads between them – a hard-fought minute’s gap forged on a climb can be snuffed out by a well-organised group on the flat roads. Not here, however – apart from the first 15 kilometres to the foot of the Madeleine, there are no valley roads.

The riders will hit the Madeleine, an hors-catégorie monstrosity with uneven pitches and a tricky descent. They’ll plunge down to the Maurienne Valley, then bounce straight up the Col de la Croix de Fer, as if they were on a bungee cord. They’ll climb the Croix de Fer from the Col du Glandon, another hors-catégorie monstrosity, which you can read about in our Iconic Places feature on page 166.
A short detour up the second category Col du Mollard is followed by the final climb, a long grind up to the Toussuire ski station.

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN?
In designing this stage, Christian Prudhomme has laid down a gauntlet to the climbers: here is your opportunity to win the Tour de France.

It’s not just the relentless climbing that promises exciting racing, it’s a very intense stage, coming in at only 148 kilometres. La Toussuire’s not difficult enough to risk leaving it all to the final climb, which forces the climbers’ hands. They have to go on the Croix de Fer or Mollard, just as Andy Schleck went on the Izoard last year, to build enough of a lead to put their rivals in trouble.

SCENERY
The stunning High Alps. It’s the kind of landscape that makes you want to listen to Wagner

WE’LL BE GORGING ON…
We’re fond of a fondue here at Cycle Sport. A pint of melted cheese, please, barman! With potatoes!

BEST BIT
Oh, do we have to? Can’t we just say all of it?

FORMER WINNERS
2006 Michael Rasmussen

SPOTTER’S GUIDE

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
Bernard Thévénet, Tour winner 1975 & 1977
Lives in Grenoble
“It’s a hard, hard stage. The most difficult of the Tour, although they will ride the first set of mountains differently to the second set. It will be hard, but not necessarily crucial – we’re only halfway through the Tour.

“They start climbing the Madeleine after 15 kilometres. The summit is difficult, and the descent can make even bigger gaps than the climb. And then, there isn’t a single metre of flat between the bottom of the descent and the start of the Croix de Fer. You descend, cross the main road and you’re climbing again.

“The Croix de Fer via the Glandon is, in my opinion, the hardest of all the climbs of the Tour. It’s a climb you feel you are not even moving on. Over the Glandon, there’s a left turn, and still a couple of kilometres to the top of the Croix de Fer. Here, the wind is often blowing strongly. Tailwind, and the riders will sail up – attacks can stick here. Headwind, and it will be a slog.

“The descent is twisty, then, again, there’s no flat before the next climb. The riders will turn right off the Croix de Fer and start climbing the Mollard. The descent of this is good terrain for strong descenders, especially if it’s wet – it’s very twisty.

“La Toussuire is not such a hard climb, but the problem will be tiredness. It’s a good place for stronger climbers to put some rivals out of contention for good.

“Races now are a waiting game – I think the teams would be missing a trick not taking advantage of such a hard stage. If a good climber got in a group with three or four others, there’s no disadavantage compared to being in a group of 12 or 15. Why not try to win the Tour here?”

IN DEPTH
– La Toussuire hosts the Tour for the second time, after 2006.
– The Madeleine makes its 24th appearance in the race since its introduction in 1969. This will be the 13th time the race has climbed the north side.
– The Croix de Fer makes its 16th Tour appearance, but this is only the second time the approach has been up the Glandon. The Tour has been up this side of the Glandon six times on other occasions.
– The riders will go around over 100 hairpin bends today: there are 26 on the northern side of the Madeleine alone.
– There are 73.3 kilometres of mountain climbing in this stage, the most in the 2012 Tour.

UPHILL BATTLES
Col de la Madeleine
Category HC
Start La Léchère
Length 24.5km
Height 1,993m
Altitude gain 1,543m
Average gradient 6.3%

Col de la Croix de Fer
Category HC
Start La Chambre
Length 23.8km
Height 2.067m
Altitude gain 1,615m
Average gradient 6.7%

Col du Mollard
Category 2
Start Pont de Belleville
Length 6km
Height 1,638m
Altitude gain 411m
Average gradient 6.8%

La Toussuire
Category 1
Start St Jean de Maurienne
Length 19km
Height 1,705m
Altitude gain 1,145m
Average gradient 6%

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Maps courtesy of Amaury Sports Organisation