Saturday is the second and last day in the Alps for the Tour de France, a towering affair that heads over two major passes and culminates, like today, in another summit finish.
There is not so much as a kilometre of flat packed into the 177km that comprise the stage. From 8.5km the road begins to rise inexorably, culminating in the mighty Col du Lautaret, the day’s first big test.
From Lautaret there’s a long, shallow descent before the next – and harder – challenge of the Col d’Izoard. The Izoard is 19km long at an average 6 per cent gradient – manna from heaven if your legs are feeling good, but hell if you have been pedalling all day with lead in your thighs.
The steepest of the day’s climbs, however, is the summit finish at Risoul. Expect the war of attrition over the previous two mighty cols to have taken its toll by the time the riders begin the 12.6km ascent. The leading group will be minuscule by now, perhaps composed only of those still in with a shot of winning the Tour.
In front of them on the road there may well be a breakaway – a lesser-known rider far down on the general classification but feeling strong enough to attempt a daring solo ride through the Alps.
This is a day that recalls the glory days of Tours long gone. It could inspire someone to attempt a vainglorious, foolhardy yet honourable effort to emulate past greats such as the Italian rivals Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali.
We will probably have to wait until at least the Izoard for attacks. Before then the stage will resemble a gradual softening-up process as riders are shelled from the back of the peloton like peas through a rusty colander.
On the final climb to Risoul, those still retaining the energy to create sparks should flicker away from the rest, shaping the race for the yellow jersey – perhaps definingly as the Tour enters its final and most arduous week.
This is a stage where those closest to Vincenzo Nibali’s race lead must act positively and decisively.
Alejandro Valverde’s preferred state is to follow attacks like a faithful hound, but to put Nibali under real pressure he, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot must really go on the offensive. Sky’s post-Froome leader Richie Porte saw his chance evaporate on today’s final climb.
For a rider, Saturday will be the kind when your legs scream like murder all stage long – but the screams will be reserved for your ego if you fail to take advantage and, as in the words of a well-known football chant, “attack, attack, attack”.
Izoard has been witness to several legendary Tour battles. In 1949, Coppi and Bartali finally made love not war here. Seeing how strong Coppi was on the climb, Bartali asked the Campionissimo to grant him the stage as a birthday gift. Bartali took the stage, but Coppi won the Tour.