Tour de France: Cathedral of the Alps set to test climbers' faith

Stage ends at cold summit of the punishing Galibieras Contador and Co look to make up for lost time

Could the Tour de France see its most spectacular summit finish ever today when the stage concludes for the first time in its history at the summit of the Galibier?

Known as the "Cathedral of the Alps", and tackled 57 times in the Tour's history, the Galibier has been central to the outcome of dozens of races in the past. But its summit has never before been the conclusion of a stage.

To do it – and the Alps – the maximum homage possible on the centenary, the Tour has decided to tackle it not once, but twice, finishing on the slightly easier side today – only 23km of non-stop climbing, as opposed to nearly 17km at an even steeper gradient. That's before the race re-scales it on Friday on its other face en route to another hugely symbolic, and tough, climb, Alpe d'Huez.

Today the first part of the ascent up the valley from Briançon is relatively straightforward, although two major climbs, the Agnel and Izoard, precede it and should see the bunch reduced to 40 or 50, a third of its full size. But it is when the ascent leaves the main A-road to Grenoble and shrinks rapidly to single-track status for its final 9km and snakes up the side of a huge glacial valley that the climb's difficulty really switches from intimidating to pure physical agony with every pedal stroke.

With no signs of civilisation visible in any direction, the Galibier is also extraordinarily beautiful. "It is the kingdom of silence, of solitude, of desolation," wrote Herman Gregoire in L'Auto, the predecessor of L'Equipe, in 1927. "Any traveller going in here will only find himself and the dreams of pine trees."

With each hairpin threatening to rip the peloton apart, it will be here that the more talented climbers, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and the Schlecks, will attempt to wrench the race out of Thomas Voeckler's grip.

For any climber the summit is bizarrely frustrating: although there is a tunnel bored through the final ridge that reduces the full climb by some 300 metres (occasionally it is used in the Tour), today the gendarmes will wave the riders on to climb to the very summit of the path.

At 2,645 feet, the riders' ability to handle altitude is an issue, and with maximum temperatures of around 6C (43F) forecast for the summit, and recently fallen snow across the entire mountain clearly visible from Briançon, 30 miles away, yesterday, so too will be their ability to handle the cold.

If the weather remains uncertain in this rain-soaked Tour, it seems unwise, too, to trust the numerous predictions that whoever wears yellow at the summit of the Galibier will be wearing yellow in Paris. But the winner on the Galibier will have earned his own niche in cycling history.

They crossed the Galibier first

6 July 1952

Already the winner of Alpe d'Huez at the Tour's maiden finish there the previous day, Italy's post-war tragic hero of cycling Fausto Coppi – who died of malaria in a hunting expedition – breaks away 10km from the summit of the Galibier. He reaches the finish in Sestriere, Italy, with a seven-minute advantage over Spain's Bernardo Ruiz. With Coppi so clearly the overall winner, the organisers double the prize money – for whoever takes second.

14 July 1955

Charly Gaul, the so-called 'Angel of the Mountains', gains his biggest ever advantage on another rider on the Galibier – a staggering 16 minutes. Gaul will not win the Tour (that went to Louison Bobet) but it confirms his status as the climber to beat.

8 July 1973

With the all-dominating Eddy Merckx missing from the Tour that year, Spain's Luis Ocaña – keen to prove that without an appaling crash on the Col de Mente two years ago he would have beaten Merckx – attacks on the Télégraphe climb, a mere 170km from the finish. Ocaña crosses the Tourmalet first, takes the stage by seven minutes and wins the Tour outright. According to race organiser Jacques Goddet: 'This was one of the biggest days in the history of the Tour.'

27 July 1998

Italian climbing genius Marco Pantani attacks defending champion Jan Ullrich in a downpour on the Galibier and stays away to the finish at Les Deux Alpes to take the yellow jersey. For 'The Pirate', the year's Giro/Tour double represents the peak of his career.