Tour de France 2013: Stage 18 preview

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Tour de France 2013 stage 18
Thursday, July 18
From Gap
Alpe d’Huez
Distance 172.5km
Stage type High mountains

Yellow jersey 5/5
Green jersey 1/5
Polka-dot jersey 5/5

We’re off to the climb which, more than any other place apart from perhaps the Champs Elysées, is the spiritual home of the Tour de France. A Tour without the Alpe never seems as whole as one which features the famous climb.

The unspoken secret about Alpe d’Huez is, it’s not actually that nice a place. The views across the valley are, of course, spectacular, with the Massif des Ecrins and Meije visible to the south-east. But the road up to the Alpe is somewhat brutal and over-engineered, while the town itself is built purely to process large numbers of people through the ski season – if you’re looking for an old town and pleasant little bistro to sup in, you’re in the wrong place. It’s all brash nightclubs, Eurotrash, fondue for dinner and functional hotels that look a little bit like prisons.

On the face of it, today’s stage is pretty revolutionary. The race climbs Alpe d’Huez, as it has done in 26 previous Tours. But today the race enters new territory – the riders will carry on through Alpe d’Huez to the Col de Sarenne, the sinuous back road which descends back to the Romanche valley, then head back to the base of Alpe d’Huez, and climbs it again.

From Gap, the stage climbs straight out of town up the Col de Manse, which last featured in the 2011 Tour and was more significant for the descent than the climb itself. Andy Schleck lost time to his rivals after losing his nerve. The climb also formed part of a mountain time trial to Orcieres-Merlette in the 1989 Tour.

The race crosses the Col d’Ornon en route to the Alpe. After the first climb, the drag to the Sarenne is much more gradual than what lies below, but the descent is extremely narrow, steep and technical, although the valley road back to Bourg d’Oisans, at the bottom, is more open and exposed to the wind, which funnels up the valley. Then, finally, comes the decisive ascent of the Alpe.

The improvisation of climbing the Alpe twice in one day doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to see fireworks early on, or that the stage will be any more decisive. The problem could be that the wind in the valley road after the descent from the Sarenne might put off attackers.

In 2011, on the Alpe d’Huez stage, the riders went ballistic on the Col du Galibier, but into a headwind down the Lautaret descent it all came back together, and a group of 30 hit the Alpe together. The same could happen today, with riders saving energy for the final climb (which would make the first ascent a bit of an anti-climax).

A lot has also been written about how hard the stage is, with two climbs of the Alpe. But again, in 2011, the Alpe stage crossed the Telegraphe and Galibier before the Alpe – these two climbs are harder than the Ornon/Alpe combination which precedes the final climb today.

But it will still be an important stage, kicking off three intense days of climbing. The result will likely magnify what’s already happened on the Ventoux, and confirm who the final contenders will be.

Col de Manse
Category: 2
Start: Gap
Length: 6.6km
Height: 1,268m
Altitude gain: 451m
Average gradient: 6.2%

Col d’Ornon
Category: 2
Length: 5.1km
Height: 1,371m
Altitude gain: 341m
Average gradient: 6.7%

Alpe d’Huez
Category: HC
Start: Bourg d’Oisans
Length: 13.8km
Height: 1,850m
Altitude gain: 1,112m
Average gradient: 8.1%

Related links
Tour de France 2013: Coverage index

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