We’re over halfway through the 2011 Tour de France—we will finally see the big boys come out to play and the race will get very serious.
Stage 12 of the Tour will take the rider into the first of three days in the Pyrenees with a journey for Cugnaux to Luz Ardiden, which takes the peloton over two high mountain climbs—including the legendary Col du Tourmalet—before finishing at the top of the climb and into the ski resort at Luz-Ardiden.
This stage will be one of the three toughest on this year’s Tour and we will finally see the big boys come out to play.
The serious contenders for 2011 are already well established on the leaders list with the likes of Cadel Evans. The Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, are within 11 seconds of Evans with three-time champion Alberto Contador a further 90 seconds back.
There is also a group of other riders who are poised to pick up the pieces should misfortune strike the leading lights. Radio Shack’s Andreas Kloden, Liquigas rider Ivan Basso and Robert Gesink of Rabobank will probably all make the top 10 under normal circumstances.
The unclassified climb into Luz-Ardiden could well be one of the pivotal climbs of the Tour and may well set up a rider who can make a serious attack stick.
It is a 14 kilometer climb with an average gradient of 7.5 percent, with a two kilometer section of 9.5 percent in the middle of the climb making the perfect launch pad for a decisive break.
The scary thing for the riders is that to get to this final climb, they first have to get over the highest mountain pass in the Pyrenees—the also unclassified climb up the 2115 metre Col du Tourmalet.
The Tourmalet climb has been a part of the Tour since 1910 and is rarely missed from the race as it provides the ultimate challenge for specialist climbers and general classification riders alike.
The stage will undoubtedly have a significant influence over the composition of the top 10 riders, although with five other high mountain stages left in this year’s race, it is unlikely to let anyone establish a race-winning lead.
At some stage Contador will be forced to make a move to claw back his time deficit. With both Schlecks and Evans, each of his moves will be countered immediately. His knee injury may also influence the outcome of his race.
The Schleck brothers are now in the box seat. Their ability to support and motivate each other over these big climbs is a tremendous advantage and will provide the ultimate contrast with Evans’ team BMC and the lack of support that he is likely to receive.
Evans' biggest support will be George Hincapie who was recruited especially to fill the role of super-domestique in the mountain stages—a role he previously performed with distinction for Lance Armstrong.
Sadly however, Hincapie is now a senior citizen in racing terms and will struggle to keep up when the pressure is on.
This stage will give us clues as to how everyone is feeling after the opening flat stages. Look for Contador to test both his knee and the opposition, whereas Evans and the Schlecks are unlikely to fire any big shots this early in the mountain stages unless they sense that the other riders are struggling with the climbs.
The general classification leaderboard will look quite different after tomorrow’s stage.