There’s one last dance in the mountains and one last chance for defending champion Tadej Pogačar to take back any time on Jonas Vingegaard before the stage 20 time trial that will cause the last differences in the general classification.
Tour de France yellow jersey Jonas Vingegaard has been Pogačar’s shadow since La Super Planche des Belles Filles. The Jumbo-Visma man has been calm, resilient and imperious.
He still holds 2:18 over his rival and has showed no signs of wilting, even under the extreme pressure UAE Team Emirates exerted on the rest of the bunch Wednesday.
Stage 18 is another short, sharp test for the bunch, 143.2km in distance with three steep Pyrenean climbs on the menu. The bunch will say their prayers at the start in the holy city of Lourdes before rolling away.
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After climbing a short hill from the start, the race rolls through the valley for the first 60 kilometers. It’s a chance for a break of climbers to establish itself and hoard as much time as possible.
The town of Laruns signifies the start of the Col d’Aubisque. It is one of the legendary Tour climbs, first appearing in the race in 1910. The 16.4-kilometer hors-categorie challenge is the longest of the day and has a tough second half.
Crested 66.5 kilometers from the finish, it’s a very early opportunity to go for broke. On stage 18, we’ll see how much more UAE Team Emirates have to give after their sensational display of team riding to Peyragudes.
The long descent to the next climb, the Col de Spandelles (110km), is punctuated by the brief Col du Soulor. On the way down here, Dutch yellow jersey wearer Wim van Est crashed onto a ledge in 1951 and was rescued by a string of tyres tied together.
In stark contrast to its iconic predecessor, it is the first time that the Spandelles been used in the Tour de France – and it could go down in folklore as an instant classic.
If someone wants to savage the race here, this narrow climb is made for it. At 10.3 kilometers averaging 8.3 percent, with its steepest pitches at its foot, middle and close to its top, it may well be every man for himself.
Pogačar and Vingegaard might be racing for the Tour triumph, but for the rest, the priority is consolidating their GC positions or simply surviving.
After a shallow descent, it’s the last mountain of the 2022 Tour de France: the 13.6-kilometer climb to the ski resort of Hautacam, on the southern outskirts of Lourdes, averaging 7.8 percent.
Its first half is steady, but its middle has a nasty sting, averaging 10 per cent for several kilometers. Altitude will not be a problem but with the mental and physical fatigue of the previous eighteen stages, big differences could still be made in a matter of kilometers here.
Vingegaard has coped with everything Pogačar could throw at him thus far; will he continue to handle it? And could he crack his Slovenian rival and put more time into him?
There are other GC skirmishes to be fought too. Only four seconds separate Nairo Quintana (Arkéa Samsic) and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) in fourth and fifth, and a mere 35 between Romain Bardet, Louis Meintjes and Alexandr Vlasov in sixth, seventh and eighth.
We will see every man in the top ten throwing their bike at the line, knowing that every possible gain counts.
King of the Mountains to be crowned
Aside from the race for the yellow jersey, the King of the Mountains classification will also surely be decided. There are 20 points available for going over the hors-categorie climbs of the Col d’Aubsique and Hautacam. Ten are on offer for the Spandelles.
Cofidis rider Simon Geschke is leading with 64 points in the classification, with Vingegaard and Pogačar as his biggest challengers, on 52 and 46 respectively. Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) is next, on 41.
If the bearded German can cross the Aubisque first, it will go a long way to securing his title. But it could come down to a matter of a few points overall, especially if the duellers for the yellow jersey light it up early.