PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — When you look west from Pinerolo, your eyes are drawn to the Alps, whose majestic peaks received a new dusting of snow this week. It was in this sparkling city of the Piedmont (literally “foot of the mountain”) region where the legendary Italian rider Fausto Coppi scored one of his most famous coups: a 192km solo odyssey over five alpine passes to finish almost 12 minutes ahead of second-place Gino Bartali to clinch his overall victory in the 1949 Giro d’Italia.

PINEROLO, Italy (VN) — When you look west from Pinerolo, your eyes are drawn to the Alps, whose majestic peaks received a new dusting of snow this week. It was in this sparkling city of the Piedmont (literally “foot of the mountain”) region where the legendary Italian rider Fausto Coppi scored one of his most famous coups: a 192km solo odyssey over five alpine passes to finish almost 12 minutes ahead of second-place Gino Bartali to clinch his overall victory in the 1949 Giro d’Italia.

'Il Campionissimo' in the 1949 Tour de France, after dominating that year's Giro.

Cycling has changed dramatically since the days of Bartali and Coppi, but the mountain summits are just as high, and most of the roads in this part of the Alps still have the same gradients and switchbacks — even if the road surfaces are somewhat smoother. On Thursday, the 169 survivors of the 98th Tour de France are encountering some of the same difficulties as their counterparts on that epic Cuneo-Pinerolo stage of the Giro more than six decades ago.

It is hard to compare the battles fought between Coppi and Bartali in that distant era with the daily skirmishes between today’s would-be giants of the road, but the contest is just as fascinating. With 17 stages and almost 3,000km of the 2011 Tour behind them, Australian hero Cadel Evans, the Luxembourg brothers Fränk and Andy Schleck, and the Spanish challengers Samuel Sanchez and Alberto Contador are still separated by less than two minutes.

Of course, they still have to dislodge Thomas Voeckler, the race leader; but barring a miraculous improvement in his climbing abilities on truly high mountains, one of the five riders listed above will have deprived the Frenchman of the yellow jersey by Thursday night. The 78-second margin that Voeckler still holds over second-place Evans will seem like small change when Evans and company punch their million-dollar muscles in the latter parts of stage 18.

This is a day that matters more than any other in the three weeks. It starts in Pinerolo and finishes atop the Col du Galibier on the 100th anniversary of the Tour first tackling that mythic climb. It’s a stage of firsts and superlatives. It features a gargantuan 17,000 feet (more than 5,000 meters) of climbing in its 200.5km and ends on the highest mountaintop finish in the Tour’s 108-year history at 8,678 feet (2,645 meters) above sea level.

LeMond in 1986

And for the first time, the race is tackling the Italian side of the mighty Col Agnel, the highest mountain pass in this year’s Tour at 9,002 feet (2,744 meters). This giant gets progressively steeper as it climbs from the Piedmont plains for no less than 64 km (40 miles). The first 40km heads up through a green agricultural valley at steady 2- to 3-percent grades to the hillside town of Sampeyre; the next 15km up to Chianale averages 4.3 percent but includes three pitches steeper than 10 percent; and the final 8.7km averages a leg-breaking 10.3 percent, with a half-dozen sections tilting upward at 14, 15 and 16 percent. It’s by far the hardest and longest climb to be included in a modern Tour.

We are not going to see one of the favorites race à la Coppi and set out on a marathon solo break here, but it’s such a challenging mountain that Voeckler may well have trouble following the pace that will likely set by the favorites’ team workers — the ones who make their day’s major efforts and then ride to the finish at a more gentle pace far behind their leaders. And the Agnel is just the first of three hors-catégorie (above category) climbs on stage 18.

The peloton will be decimated here before making the sharp 24km descent to the start of climb No. 2, the more familiar Col d’Izoard where monuments to Coppi and the Tour’s first three-time winner Louison Bobet of France sit next to each other on a rocky promontory 2.5km from the summit.

The Izoard was on the route of that epic 1949 Giro stage won by Coppi, and its challenges are just as relevant. It measures 14.1km with an average grade of 7.3 percent and features three particular challenges. The first is a steep, dead-straight section up through the remote village of Arvieux 3km into the climb; the second is a 6km stretch of switchbacks on double-digit grades to the Casse Déserte, the barren lunar-like ridge where Bobet made his decisive attacks in the Tours of the early-1950s; and the third is the final 2km stretch across a rock-strewn mountainside to the 7,742-foot (2,360 meter) crest.

Top 15 GC

    1. Thomas Voeckler 2,982.5km in 69:00:56
    2. Cadel Evans at 1:18
    3. Fränk Schleck at 1:22
    4. Andy Schleck at 2:36
    5. Samuel Sanchez at 2:59
    6. Alberto Contador at 3:15
    7. Damiano Cunego at 3:34
    8. Ivan Basso at 3:49
    9. Tom Danielson at 6:04
    10. Rigoberto Uran at 7:36
    11. Jean-Christophe Peraud at 7:53
    12. Kevin De Weert at 8:07
    13. Rein Taaramae at 8:35
    14. Pierre Rolland at 10:03
    15. Sandy Casar at 10:33

Normally, this would be the decisive climb of the stage where Contador or one of the Schlecks would make strong accelerations to test their opponents and distance a lesser climber like Voeckler; but head winds of 20 mph (30 kph) are expected here on Thursday and that may well force the defending champion to hold off on a full-out attack.

Coincidentally, when the Tour last came over the Izoard before finishing at the race’s then highest mountaintop finish (the Col de Granon) in 1986, the race leader was also a Frenchman, Bernard Hinault. On that day, the last French winner of the Tour said he was having knee pains on the climb and he couldn’t follow Swiss challenger Urs Zimmermann when he accelerated on the Izoard’s steepest slopes.

But Hinault’s teammate Greg LeMond easily stayed with the Swiss. Together, they descended to Briançon, headed up the valley toward the Galibier and took the right turn up the narrow, switchback climb to the 7,916-foot (2413-meter) summit of the Col de Granon. While an out-of-overall-contention Spaniard Eduardo Chozas won that stage in a long solo breakaway, LeMond and Zimmermann climbed clear of all their GC rivals, with Hinault arriving at the top more than three minutes behind them.

On that high mountaintop exactly 25 years ago, LeMond became the first American to pull on the yellow jersey. It was a magic moment in Tour history, especially as it happened on that highest peak where several riders collapsed from the lack of oxygen at the end of a grueling six hours over three alpine passes.

On Thursday, expect Contador and Sanchez to try to repeat that LeMond-Zimmermann coup of 1986. But after completing two of the Tour’s toughest climbs, Evans and the Schlecks will likely still be with them (barring accidents), so the two Spanish riders will have a hard time getting away. Perhaps they’ll make their move within sight of the Bobet and Coppi memorial stones and continue their effort on the very technical 17km downhill to Briançon — like they did Wednesday on the much shorter drop into Pinerolo.

The expected weather conditions will work against a move on the Izoard because after Briançon the riders face strong head winds on the dozen or so kilometers in the valley past Serre Chevalier before they begin the 23km-long haul to the top of the Galibier. Though the gradients on this southern approach to the mythical Tour summit average only 5 percent, it gradually steepens to end with a 12.5-percent kicker to the line!

Added challenges for the riders are the likely mist and cold temperature at the finish: just 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) with a 25-mph (40-kph) gusts giving a wind chill closer to freezing point. The more robust Evans looks better equipped to withstand such cold conditions and still perform at a high level, so maybe 25 years after an American it will be an Australian pulling on the maillot jaune at the Tour’s highest-ever stage finish.