Thursday the Tour heads into the mountains for a final day of battling on the slopes of the Pyrénées. Stage 17 runs from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyregudes. This time, there is a mountain top finish, and it's the last chance for the climbers to make their play for the yellow jersey. The stage is also short at just 143.5 kilometers, so the speeds should be high from the start.
The general classification battle looks nearly done and dusted. With the help of Ivan Basso, Vincenzo Nibali attacked on the col de Peyresourde, but he could not shake the hold of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome on the top two places in the general classification. Indeed, with every passing day, Wiggins tightens his hold on the yellow jersey. Just one more mountain stage and a long time trial, which will suit him to perfection, remain for Wiggins to defend his lead.
After Wednesday's stage, Nibali promised that he would try again, but surely even he must know that his chances of success are slim. Together, Wiggins and Froome have succeeding in squelching every sign of rebellion against the Team Sky rule over this race. The uphill finish offers the potential for a bike race to break out, but it will take something special for Nibali to take more than two minutes out of Wiggins. Behind Nibali, Van Den Broeck is 5:46 behind Wiggins. Behind Van Den Broeck, the time gaps yawn open Grand Canyon style.
Thursdays stage sets out from Bagnères-de-Luchon with 17 kilometers of gradual descending. Then, it's time for climbing. The Col de Menté runs 9.3 kilometers, and it's a steep one. There's a section of 11% near the bottom. That'll smart, especially during the third week of a grand tour. The riders reach the summit of the Menté after just over 25 kilometers of racing. Anyone will cold legs will not enjoy this first climb.
After the rude awakening of the Col de Menté, the stage gets its mellow on. There's around ten kilometers of descending, an uncategorized bump, and some more descending. After 49 kilometers of racing, the six-kilometer Col de Ares pops up, but relatively speaking, there isn't much to fear here. The Ares averages 5% for just over 5 kilometers. Following the Ares, the terrain bumps along, mostly descending.
The Côte de Burs announces the next phase of the stage. The intermission is over. There are two massive cols crammed into the final 50 kilometers of this stage. At kilometer 95, the riders begin their ascent of the massive hors catègorie Port de Balès. The Balès is just over 11 kilometers in length, though there is some extra credit climbing on the way to the climb.
You may be thinking that you have seen the Port de Balès before. That's because you have! In 2010, the Tour climbed the Balès. Andy Schleck attacked while wearing the yellow jersey. Then, he dropped his chain, and Alberto Contador sped past Schleck and into the race lead. Contador eventually won the Tour in Paris, but Schleck received the title in the end after that eternally long doping case against Contador. Only in cycling, right?
Also, notable from that day on the Balès, Evans rode the climb well off the back of the yellow jersey with a broken elbow. Mauro Santambrogio escorted Evans to the line on that occasion. Evans, he has the knack for winning loyalty from his teammates. George Hincapie and Amaël Moinard played a similar support role on Wednesday as Evans suffered in the heat and watched his Tour hopes evaporate.
From the summit of the Port de Balès, the riders descent 17 kilometers to Saint-Aventin. Once they reach the valley floor, it's straight back up they go. The finishing climb of this stage is a double, because two climbs is always better than one. The riders first climb the col de Peyresourde. Then, there's a short descent of around four kilometers. The finishing climb runs around five kilometers to the finish.
There is potential for reshuffling of the general classification on this stage, though it'll take some hard riding. Certainly, we've all seen grand tours turn on the final mountain stage of the race. Wiggins and Froome can take nothing for granted. Nibali will try again, and who knows who else might want to play along.
Time table! On the fastest time schedule, the riders reach Aveux at the base of the Port de Balès as 15:16 France time. That's 6:16 Pacific/9:16 east. The summit of the Balès is at 15:56 French time. So, 6:56 Pacific/9:56 east. The final climb, the Peyresourde, begins at 16:36 France/7:36 Pacific/10:36 East. Fastest finishing time is 16:47 France. So, if you're on the west coast, expect the stage finish around 7:47. On the east coast, it'll be around 10:47.