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Studying Le Tour: Izoard uncertainty

The Tour de France has a long history with the Col d'Izoard. However, 2017 is the first year the climb will serve as a mountaintop finish.

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The Tour de France throws one final mountain challenge at the contenders on Thursday. The Col d’Izoard is back in the Tour — in a very big way.

Stage 18‘s summit finish comes at the end of a 179.5-kilometer day. The stage also includes a trip up Col de Vars. The overall standings are still so close after the Pyrénées and Massif Centrale that we could see five riders all fighting for the yellow jersey.

Col d’Izoard by the numbers: The southern ascent is 14.1 kilometers at 7.3 percent average gradient, with 10 percent ramps throughout the second half.

Previous Tour stages: Too many to list! Since 1922, 34 Tour de France stages have climbed the Izoard. Most recently, stage 14 in 2014, stage 18 in 2011, and stage 15 in 2006 included the barren climb. Despite all of these trips up the col’s road, which was built between 1893 and 1897, the Tour has never had a summit finish on the Izoard until this year.

What history can teach us: Naturally, there is a big difference between a summit finish and a mid-stage climb. While there isn’t a clear historical analog, one thing is certain: most of the riders who crossed the Izoard first in those 34 stages were cycling’s biggest champions. Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Federico Bahamontes, and Eddy Merckx all mastered La Casse Déserte, the barren rock field at the top.

In 1975, Bernard Thévenet won his first Tour. His recollection emphasizes the prestige of being the first to the top. “That same morning, the huge star that was Louison Bobet asked me, almost instructed me, to ride solo into the Casse Déserte and to lead the race over the summit if I wanted to become a champion,” Thévenet told l’Équipe. So the Frenchman did just that. He crossed the Izoard alone, ahead of the peloton, in stage 16. Thévenet shored up a tenuous lead and went on to win his first yellow jersey.

Perhaps we cannot compare the “Xs” and “Os” of a previous summit finish on the Izoard. It seems clear, however, that the climb is difficult enough to draw out the Tour’s best riders. The GC favorites shouldn’t leave this stage for an early breakaway to win.

What will we see this year? Interestingly, the Izoard outcome might hinge on two other stages — not Thursday’s. First, the field faces stage 17 with the famous Col du Telegraphe/Galibier combo. This will soften up the legs. Then, the favorites will be anticipating Saturday’s stage 20 time trial in Marseille.

Riders like Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Fabio Aru (Astana) would do well to throw everything they have at the Izoard. Perhaps they’ll hit out the day before as well because they don’t usually ride time trials as well as Chris Froome (Sky) and Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac).

Now for Froome or Urán, patience may be the best approach on the Izoard. Yes, it would be nice to gain time on stage 18. But if they bury themselves on Thursday, they may be found wanting on Saturday. Further, riders looking to make the Izoard a defensive chess match might make stage 17 exceptionally hard to dull the attacks on the final summit finish.

Unfortunately, there’s potential for one less-exciting scenario. If the top-five riders are still within one minute of each other, it could be a stalemate. They might avoid bold, early attacks for fear of losing a podium result. Let’s hope not.