Two giant Alpine climbs to test contenders' mettle
Andy Schleck rides alongside the Astana train.
STAGE 16: Martigny - Bourg-Saint-Maurice
Tuesday, July 21
WHAT'S THE COURSE LIKE?
Frightening. There's not a metre of flat road in today's 159km stage, as the peloton go over two massive Alpine climbs on the road to Bourg-St Maurice.
From the start in the Swiss town of Martigny, the road pitches up and continues to rise for 40 kilometres to the summit of the Hors-category Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard.
After a long descent into Italy, there are intermediate sprints at Sarre (78.5km) and Pre Saint-Didier (106km) on the gradually-rising road up the Aosta valley.
The climbing starts again in the form of the 22-kilometre slog up the first-category Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard. Though its average gradient is 5.1%, some steeper sections near the summit will whittle down the group.
From the summit, it's 31 kilometres downhill to the stage finish in Bourg-Saint-Maurice. The descent gets technical halfway down, with plenty of switchbacks and off-camber bends to test the riders' skills and nerve.
Estimated finish time - 16.25 BST
WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN?
King of the Mountains contenders Franco Pellizotti and Egoi Martinez will be very active early on, keen to make it into the day's breakaway. Undoubtedly, this is a day for strong climbers outside of the overall dogfight to take flight.
The pack may ride tempo over the slightly-tougher Grand Saint-Bernard, though its length and difficulty means there will still be a select bunch over the top.
After a regrouping in the valley, the Petit Saint-Bernard could see attacks from the likes of Andy Schleck, Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans, who badly need to take back time. If the racing is full-on, it will be a case of ones and twos over the summit.
The 31-kilometre descent to Bourg-Saint-Maurice does favour chasers, so there could be a small and select group of overall contenders finishing together. However, any mistakes on the twisty road down will be very damaging to yellow-jersey aspirations.
The Tour may not be won today but, as we saw in the 2008 race on the descent of the Col de la Bonette, with Christian Vande Velde and Denis Menchov, it can certainly be lost by any overly-cautious or careless contenders.
MEN TO WATCH
Andy Schleck - On Verbier, Schleck underlined that he is the man most likely to challenge Alberto Contador in the mountains. With Wiggins and Armstrong ahead of him, the white-jersey wearer must take back some time before the time-trial in Annecy. Brother and teammate Frank is a huge asset too.
Carlos Sastre - Perfectly paced his effort on Sunday to finish with a flourish. The defending champion may be 3-52 down on Contador, but he is always strong and canny in the race's final week.
Bradley Wiggins - So far, his positioning has been faultless; his climbing ultra-solid. Consistent riding over the next two days will set the Garmin man up nicely for a top-three finish.
Alberto Contador - The Spaniard's display on Verbier emphasised that nobody can live with his relentless pace in the mountains. We'd love to see Contador tear up the rulebook and follow the dictum "attack is the best form of defence" on the day's last climb to rein in any attacking rivals.
Cadel Evans - We're yet to see the Australian make any real difference with his half-hearted accelerations; this must change if he wants to finish on the final podium. Evans is a good time-trialist, but that doesn't count for much when you're four and a half minutes down.
Franco Pellizotti and Egoi Martinez - The King of the Mountains competition has, by and large, failed to capture the imagination this year; the two challengers have simply failed to dazzle. The competition will be decided in the next two days; escaping over these two Alpine giants would certainly provide a memorable ride, fitting of a polka-dot jersey winner.
CW'S TIP TO WIN
A breakaway will be whittled down to a couple of strong climbers who are no threat to the yellow jersey. Perhaps Denis Menchov or David Moncoutié will resurrect their quiet races today.
WHO'S WEARING THE JERSEYS
Yellow - Alberto Contador (Astana)
Green - Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team)
Polka-dot - Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas)
White - Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)