The high mountains begin with a very intriguing stage that trundles towards the Pyrenees with hardly a moment to concern even the poorest climber but packs a real punch in its final quarter in the shape of two of what the Tour likes to call its '21st-century climbs'. The key action should begin when the race reaches the steepest ramps of the Col de Pailhères, the 'roof' of this year's race at 2,001m. Averaging 8 per cent, it's tough but potentially made more so because it appears with no foothills to warm up on, so anyone off the pace on the Pailhères could end up having a very bad day indeed. From the summit, there are only 28km to the finish of which 20km are a fast descent. At the foot in Ax-les-Thermes there's no chance to make up lost ground as the road heads quickly onto the final climb, made famous by Carlos Sastre's dummy-sucking win in 2003. Again, the average is about 8 per cent. With only 8km to the summit, the main action is likely as soon as the GC contenders hit the climb.
Today the riders get to test their climbing legs but with two major ascents in the final 50km, the stage has a serious sting in its tail.
Nicolas Portal: "This Tour comes in two halves. The first half is all about not losing. The second is about winning.
"This stage could catch some riders out because of the sudden change of rhythm after 120 pretty flat kilometres. The Pailhères is long and it rises for more than the 15km on the official profile."
In 2010, the last occasion when the race crossed the Pailhères and finished at Ax 3 Domaines, victory went to AG2R's Christophe Riblon, who was the only rider from the day's big break to hold off the big guns. Yellow jersey Andy Schleck and rival Alberto Contador stuck close to each other, 'playing poker' as Schleck put it.