Stage 18: Embrun-Valloire
Date: July 25, 2019
Distance: 208 km
Stage type: Mountain
The stairway to heaven stage. There are four climbs, each higher than the last, the final three topping out at 2,109 metres, 2,360 metres and 2,642 metres, respectively. In other words, at the finish in Valloire the identity of the remaining contenders for the yellow jersey will be confirmed, and one outstanding candidate may well have stepped forward or strengthened their position as the king of this mountainous Tour.
Extending to more than 200 kilometres, this will be a long day in the saddle. The third-category ascent of the wonderfully named Demoiselles Coiffées (ladies with hairdos), describing the unusual rock formations above Embrun, provides an early opportunity to warm the legs before a trio of legendary ascents in the shape of the Vars, Izoard and Galibier.
Approached from Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye, the first in that triptych is not especially long, but becomes extremely difficult after the brief plateau at its halfway point. The Izoard has a similar profile but, at 14.1km, is a good deal longer and climbs significantly higher. Its final 7km, which include the passage through the magnificent Casse Déserte, average 9%.
After plunging down into Briançon, the riders then tackle the Galibier. Once again, this is a giant that holds back its fiercest sections until late on. Essentially a long upward drag, often into a headwind, as far as the Col du Lauteret, it kicks up more steeply as it twists up the mountainside to the summit, the location of the penultimate point-bonus. With the very fast drop into the finish at Valloire to follow, the first rider across the summit could very well scoop 18 seconds in bonuses in addition to the stage win.
The battle between the GC contenders should be intense. For those with a deficit to recoup, there will be no holding back. For those with something to defend and aiming to control their rivals, and particularly the yellow jersey, this will be a hugely sapping test, the toll it has exacted perhaps not apparent until the next two days.