LUCHON, France (AFP) — A first Tour de France visit to the summit of Peyragudes in the Pyrénées could signal the last chance of glory for several yellow jersey challengers on Thursday.
At only 143.5km, stage 17 is comparatively short but what it lacks in distance it will make up for in intensity, according to organizers.
“It’s short, but it’s brutal,” said course designer and Tour technical director Jean-Francois Pescheux.
“We wanted to create something similar to the Albertville-La Toussuire stage in the Alps. The key difference is that we are now only three days away from the finish in Paris.”
The peloton will tackle a total of five climbs, giving the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) a chance to make up their deficits to race leader Bradley Wiggins (Sky).
If they fail, the pair face the daunting prospect of having to overcome their deficits to Wiggins in the 19th and penultimate stage Saturday, a 53.5km time trial which many expect Wiggins to win.
Wiggins began stage 16 in the Pyrénées with a lead of 2:05 on Sky teammate Chris Froome, with Nibali third, at 2:23, and defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) fourth, at 3:19. Van den Broeck sat fifth, at 4:48.
However, if Wiggins’ Sky team maintains the sustained efforts of pace-setting that have hindered the most experienced climbers in the peloton, the Englishman is likely to take yet another step towards yellow jersey triumph.
On the 11th stage in the Alps to La Toussuire Evans bravely attacked Sky in a bid to close some of his then-deficit of 1:53.
But, 60km from home, the Australian was brought to heel as Sky hammered out the tempo. By the end of the stage Evans lost another 1:26 to Wiggins, and with it virtually all chance of winning the Tour.
Prior to the race’s second rest day on Tuesday, Evans, for one, signaled his frustration with how his race has gone this year.
“It seems like their riders have all come on the best form on their lives,” Evans noted.
“They ride a continuous tempo that’s leaving the climbers pretty empty when they get to the final. It’s making it difficult to do stuff.”
Nibali admitted it would be hard to beat Sky on his own: “It is a difficult challenge. To make the difference in the mountains I will have to find allies to help.”
Stage 17 could witness fireworks from the start, but with Evans eliminated from the GC picture after Wednesday stage to Bagnères-de-Luchon, Nibali’s list of potential allies is becoming short.
Several riders — Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) and Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) — are still in contention for the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey.
Although points can be won at each summit, the most points are on offer at the summit of the Cat. 1 Port de Balès (11.7km) and the hors categorie Peyragudes (15.4km).
The Col de Mente, a Cat. 1 climb of 9.3km at an average gradient of 9.1 percent, is first on the menu and will be tackled by its steepest side.
Next up are the Col d’Ares (6km) and the Cote de Burs (1.2km), before the Port de Balès and Peyragudes.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme seems happy to leave the peloton with a lasting impression of the final climbing stage.
“There is barely a flat piece of terrain in the final 50 kilometers,” he said.