The Tour reaches the mountains on stages eight and nine this weekend, minus its defending champion but having collected enough bumps, bruises and thrills to fill three weeks of racing.
The Vosges are different from their Alpine and Pyrenean siblings. Less imposing but often steeper, their narrow roads require constant vigilance and suit riders with explosive power. Perhaps these two days are skirmishes ahead of the full-on mountain battle to come, but they should tease us nevertheless with some indications as to the yellow jersey contenders’ true form.
Stage eight today reads gently enough for 142km (89 miles) before jamming three bitterly sharp climbs into the final 19km. Look for the peloton’s elastic to be stretched to breaking point on the Col de la Croix des Moinats and 3km long Col de Grosse Pierre before it snaps on the short 10 per cent ramp to Gérardmer La Mauselaine.
Those 1.8km to the finish will favour a climber with serious punch – perhaps AG2R’s Romain Bardet, who has been carrying home hopes with aplomb, or Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha, struggling for health and form but dangerous whenever the road points upwards.
British eyes will be focused on the two home riders left in the race: Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Simon Yates of Orica-GreenEdge. Tomorrow’s stage nine looks like the kind of day Yates might enjoy, with six categorised climbs followed by a long descent into Mulhouse.
Unlike today’s stage, there is no gentle run-in to proceedings – it’s uphill from the start, with the 8.6km Col de la Schlucht. Any contender with rubber in his legs will find himself in difficulty with so far still to race.
It’s a roller coaster of a day from then on – while there is no defining monster of a climb, the combined effects of the constant up and down will leave a collection of screaming legs by the summit of the 1.4km Grand Ballon, the final categorised climb of the stage.
Together, the two opening mountain stages of this year’s Tour form an intriguing companion piece. The likelihood is that by tomorrow the overall order of the race will not have changed too greatly. Then again, so unpredictable are some of these climbs that the complexion of the top 10 could be a confused shade of grey by the weekend’s end.
The Alps and Pyrenees are undoubtedly more iconic, but the Vosges are arguably just as important to the history of the Tour. The first official mountain climb in the race’s history occurred here in 1905, when the Frenchman René Pottier went first over the summit of the Col du Ballon d’Alsace.
Pottier won the yellow jersey that year and repeated the feat in 1906. But less than a year later he had committed suicide after learning of his wife’s adultery. There is a stone dedicated to him atop the climb he pioneered.