The 2016 Tour de France will spend its second day in the Alps on Thursday, as Stage 18 will be an individual-climbing time trial that should separate the true contenders for a top-three finish from the rest of the pack.
Team Sky's Chris Froome comfortably survived Wednesday's Stage 17, strengthening his lead in the general classification, and the upcoming course profile makes him the clear favourite to add another stage win on Thursday and all but wrap up this year's Tour.
Here's everything you need to know for Stage 18.
Date: Thursday, July 21
Route: Sallanches — Megeve
Profile: High Mountains
Time: 1 p.m. (BST), 8 a.m. (ET)
TV Info: ITV 4 (UK), NBC Sports Gold (U.S.)
The Tour de France tends to shy away from climbing time trials, and Thursday's will be the first since the riders conquered Alpe d'Huez in 2004.
There's a good reason for that—climbing time trials tend to be too definitive, taking some of the excitement out of the last week of racing. With two major mountain stages still to come, there's a good chance Froome will gain serious time on his opponents, virtually rendering the final two stages before the ride to Paris moot.
Here's a look at the task at hand, courtesy of Cyclingnewstv:
The flat section to start the stage could prove the difference—it will force riders to choose between a time-trial bike and a normal road bike. Bike swaps should occur at the foot of the climb.
There's little doubt Froome is the clear favourite to take the stage win. The defending Tour champion once again put time into his opponents during Stage 17, and only BMC's Richie Porte was able to keep up when he launched his attack.
Sky have controlled the race beautifully so far, choosing not to chase after breakaways in the high mountains and prioritising the battle for yellow over stage wins. Eurosport's Laura Meseguer noted the favourites to unseat Froome haven't even come close to his level:
Miraculous comebacks will have to start on Thursday, setting up a tense final two days in the Alps, but it seems highly unlikely. Astana's Fabio Aru and Movistar's Nairo Quintana lack the form to put time into Froome, and Orica-BikeExchange's Adam Yates and Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo will be more concerned with preserving their spots in the standings.
There are reasons for hope for Quintana and Company, however. Froome has a tendency to slide during the final week of racing, and on Thursday, he'll be without his team-mates.
Wout Poels and Sergio Henao have played huge roles in Froome's success, closing gaps and countering attacks, and the former in particular has been in sensational form of late. The Sunday Times' David Walsh thinks he won't be a domestique for much longer:
Tanel Kangert of Astana is still hoping his main competition will finally "crack," as he told Daniel Benson of Cycling News: “The whole team of Sky is going strong, controlling the race from start to finish, and it is really hard to break them. We will still keep going, and maybe one day they will crack. There are still two more days, and we will see what happens.”
Expect Henao, Poels and the rest of Sky to save some strength on Thursday, while Froome goes all out to preserve or even expand his lead. The Kenyan-born rider will most likely win the Tour de France during Stage 18, but if he digs too deep or nearly three weeks of racing finally take their toll, he could break down, and we may have a real race on our hands.