July 22, 2015 – Every Tour de France becomes a grueling slog-fest in the final week. This year is no different, as was seen Wednesday when six more of the Tour’s 198 starters pulled out, including a sick Tejay van Garderen, who’d been heading for the Paris podium, and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski.

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

Expect more of the 163 survivors of this 102nd Tour to abandon the race in the upcoming three days in the High Alps.

3 DOLLAR_SMALL2

Stage 18 (July 23): Gap–Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne 186.5km

At nearly 200 kilometers, stage 18 is the longest of the three days through the French Alps, traversing the region from the southwest to the northeast corner. After climbing right from the start out of Gap on the same road they faced last Monday on the finishing loop, the 163 survivors will fight out who will be in the day’s breakaway in the next 60 kilometers along the rolling Route Napoléon—which is the route taken by Napoléon Bonaparte from his exile in Elba in 1815 en route to Paris to reclaim the French Empire—before his eventual defeat at Waterloo 100 days later. As the riders race into the unknown on Thursday, everyone is wondering whether Tour leader Chris Froome is on his way to Paris for a second coronation in three years, or if he’s heading to his Waterloo at the hands (and legs) of his two nearest challengers, Team Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde.

Two centuries after Napoléon’s demise, the Tour warriors will leave the Emperor’s road to the east, facing three short, but testing ascents before a fast, 15-kilometer-long technical descent from the summit of the appropriately named Col de la Morte (“Pass of the Dead”) through 10 switchback turns to the base point of the stage in the Romanche valley. The road climbs for most of the next 45 kilometers up the “easy” side of the Col du Glandon. Another steep, long (20-kilometer) descent takes them to a most unusual climb, new to the Tour, the Lacets de Montvernier, which makes 18 tight, narrow hairpin turns to climb a near-vertical mountainside—with the summit just 10 kilometers from the finish in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.

22 July 2015 102nd Tour de France Stage 17 : Digne-les-Bains - Pra Loup CONTADOR Alberto (ESP) Tinkoff - Saxo, at Col de la Colle Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

This will is one of the more unpredictable stages of this year’s Tour, but it surely offers an opportunity for another early breakaway to be successful—and perhaps the chance for former Tour champions Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali to make use of the various downhills to push Froome and his Sky teammates to the limit.

Stage 19 (July 24): Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne–La Toussuire 138km

This circular trip over three alpine passes before a mountaintop finish at La Toussuire is the most intense climbing stage of this year’s Tour, with more than 60 kilometers of uphill work. It offers Quintana his best chance of usurping Froome—but then again this is the same finish climb where Froome displayed his amazing uphill ability at the 2012 Tour but had to end his solo counterattack to help then Sky team leader Brad Wiggins stay in the yellow jersey. It is also the stage finish used in 2006 when Michael Rasmussen won the stage and Óscar Pereiro claimed the yellow jersey from race leader, Floyd Landis, who wilted on the red-hot climb.

It will be rough going for men wanting to get into an early break because this stage opens with a 15-kilometer climb and 15-kilometer descent, followed by 30 kilometer of rolling terrain before the highest climb of the stage: the “tough” side of the Col du Glandon—which the peloton descended the previous day. That climb extends to the nearby summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer before an open descent, short climb of the Col du Mollard and continued downhill racing to the stage start town of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, to begin the 18-kilometer haul up to the finish line in La Toussuire.

22 July 2015 102nd Tour de France Stage 17 : Digne-les-Bains - Pra Loup FROOME Christopher (GBR) Sky, Maillot Jaune Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

Quintana and Valverde (along with Contador and Nibali) know that the only way of dislodging Froome is to attack before the climb to the finish, so we can expect to see plenty of action over the Glandon-Croix de Fer summit and on the two subsequent descents.

Stage 20 (July 25): Modane–L’Alpe d’Huez 110.5km

This last mountain stage of the Tour is similar to the final one in 2011—though that was followed the next day by a time trial in Grenoble before the teams were flown to Paris for the finale. With no final time trial this year, those still in contention for the overall victory will have to be at their very best on the 21-switchback climb to the ski village of L’Alpe d’Huez.

Four years ago, Contador, with time to make up, attacked with race leader Andy Schleck early in the 110-kilometer stage up the Col du Télégraphe —and eventual winner Evans was forced into a long chase after a mechanical problem on that first climb. Evans eventually rejoined his rivals, but only after a sustained effort down the 30-kilometer-long descent of the Col du Galibier, before Pierre Rolland took an opportunistic stage win on the Alpe ahead of Samuel Sanchez and Contador.

2015 tour de france alberto contador attack

Because of landslides, the Télégraphe-Galibier duet has been replaced by the east-to-west climb of the Croix de Fer—which the riders descended on stage 18. They then go down the long side of the Glandon, the one that was climbed on stage 18 before reaching the base of L’Alpe d’Huez.

When the Tour last had a mountaintop finish immediately before Paris, in 2013 on the Semnoz mountain above Annecy, Quintana claimed a famous solo victory over Joaquim Rodriguez, with both of them leapfrogging Contador to land on the final podium. They didn’t threaten the five-minute lead of overall winner Froome, but at the very end of the three weeks of racing, it’s clear that the podium won’t be set until the summit of Alpe d’Huez.

2015 tour de france rivals nairo quintana chris froome 1

* * *
You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson