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By John Wilcockson
Lance Armstrong knows better than anyone that the Tour de France ends in Paris, and not after just the first mountain stage. That’s particularly true this year because the second half of the 92nd Tour, starting with Wednesday’s stage 11, is more challenging than ever.
Mountain stages don’t get much tougher than Wednesday’s, which features 12,600 feet of climbing in just 173km (108 miles). After an initial 30km descent from the start in Courchevel, the uphill work begins with the 25.4km haul up the Col de la Madeleine. This classic alpine climb pitches steeply (up to 10 percent) out of a deep, wooded valley before twisting its way on a narrow road along the edge of a precipitous ravine, and then heads in tight curves and long straights through high alpine meadows to the 6562-foot summit.
The course next plunges for 20km to the feed zone at St. Avre in the Maurienne valley. Most of the next 58km are uphill: first along a wide valley road, then for 12km in smooth switchbacks up to the narrow ridge of the Col du Télégraphe and, after a five-minute downhill to Valloire, comes the 17.5km grind though wide-open mountain terrain to the spectacular 8678-foot summit of the Col du Galibier.
This is the highest point of the 2005 Tour and could be made tougher Wednesday by a possible thunderstorm and temperatures in the upper-40s. The closing 40km descent to a flat finish in Briançon is very fast on smooth roads and doesn’t allow much time for the race to regroup.
The last time that a Tour stage crossed the Galibier from the tougher northern approach and ended in the high valley at or near Briançon was in 1993. That year, the giant climb produced a breakaway by the four men who eventually finished first through fourth in Paris: Miguel Induráin of Spain, Tony Rominger of Switzerland, Zenon Jaskula of Poland and Alvaro Mejia of Colombia.
On Wednesday only the top yellow-jersey contenders will be left together on the Galibier. They won’t necessarily be exactly the same men who fought out the stage 10 finish in Courchevel on Tuesday. That was a power climb run off at high speed, whereas the higher elevation and steeper pitches of the Galibier should bring riders like Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer and Cadel Evans back into the picture.
Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team will again set the tempo, but it won’t be as violent as it was on Courchevel. The Texan will want one or two teammates with him to control likely attacks on the final descent — especially if the faltering T-Mobile trio of Jan Ullrich, Andreas Klöden and Alex Vinokourov can recover from their collective setback on stage 10.
Other questions to be answered include: Can KoM leader Michael Rasmussen of Denmark ride strongly for the fourth stage in a row and keep within a half-minute of yellow jersey Armstrong? And can the dynamic Spanish duo of Francisco Mancebo and Alejandro Valverde continue their charge? If they are still in the mix at Briançon then Tour rookie Valverde should win again. That would establish the charismatic 25 year old as Spain’s greatest hope to succeed five-time winner Induráin.