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By John Wilcockson
We’ve had the Alps and the Pyrénées. Now comes the Massif Central, with three challenging stages that will decide the final outcome of the 2005 Tour de France. At 189km, Thursday’s stage 18 is the longest of the three. It’s also likely to be the hottest of the three, with a blazing sun and forecast temperatures in the upper-80s.
The heat will make this stage particularly difficult as there’s not much shade on the limestone plateaus that the course traverses in the Aveyron and Lozère regions. The last 80 kilometers are particularly difficult starting with a Cat.3 climb just before the race passes beneath the world’s highest viaduct near Millau. Opened last winter, the Viaduc de Millau has seven supporting towers 1125 feet tall — even higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The deck of this highway bridge, designed by famed British architect Norman Foster, sits 885 feet above the Tarn River.
The challenging Cat. 2 Côte de Boyne climbing out of the Tarn Gorge is 9.2km long and leads to a final 15km that opens with a Cat. 3 climb, continues with a swift downhill into the Lot valley at Mende, and closes with a severe Cat. 2 climb with 14-percent pitches. The finish line is on the runway of the local airfield atop the plateau. In the only Tour stage finish at Mende, in 1995, Laurent Jalabert used the closing Croix-Neuve climb (which has been renamed the montée Laurent Jalabert) to drop his longtime breakaway companions and score a memorable Bastille Day stage victory. That break had started on the day’s first climb out of St. Etienne and built a 10-minute lead, forcing race leader Miguel Induráin’s team to chase for most of the day to stop Jalabert taking the yellow jersey.
Maybe there will be another dangerous breakaway this time. There was a hint what could happen on Wednesday’s rather gentle climb on the finishing circuit at Revel, where strong attacks by T-Mobile’s Alex Vinokourov (trying to move up the top 10) and Jan Ullrich (trying to take time out of Michael Rasmussen) dynamited the pack. These two are sure to again be aggressive, and the battle could be intense if riders like Floyd Landis, Cadel Evans, Oscar Pereiro or Santiago Botero join in the attacks. In any case, the tough finish will sift out any weaker elements in the GC standings.