In this 200.5km stage, riders must tackle three Hors-Categorie mountains, the harshest test in what is a three-week series of challanges, the most deadly weapon in the Tour's well-stocked arsenal. Proceedings kick off in Pinerolo where Stage 16 came to a close, the Italian town acting as a stage town for the first time this year. The peloton leaves on the S589 as it heads from the city centre, passing some good new buildings before entering the flat countryside to the south. This first section is likely to encourage early breakaways as riders with no chance of picking up big points in the high mountains race ahead in an attempt to get to the intermediate sprint (starting today after 46.5km), meaning that we're likely to see a repeat of yesterday when various riders attempted to escape the pack right from the end of the neutral zone. It might be a short while before anyone meets with any success, but it'll come early so that those within the escape group can pick up whatever points they can.
The road is almost perfectly straight with the exception of a large roundabout at the junction with the SP161 which passes above on a fly-over - however, with the entrance and exit to the roundabout being slightly off-set to the left, negotiating the central island requires little deviation and other than spreading the pack out a little with have virtually no noticeable effect - and then heads on to another; this second one being trickier. Very soon it becomes possible to see the Castello di Osasco, standing at the north-western corner of a village. A little way on is a difficult roundabout with a kinked entrance that may trick some riders into taking the wrong line and subsequently losing time. Just past Garzigliani the road crosses two rivers before continuing south through a little hamlet named Casenuove and straight through a crossroads.
|Rocca di Cavour.|
|Castello di Envie.|
On the southern edge of Verzuolo, the peloton turns south-west at a roundabout and travels toward Piasco, site of the world's only harp museum, and continues west around another roundabout to Venasca - the name, derived from an ancient word, is believed most likely to mean either "water" or "poison." As is often the case in Italy, this small town of around 1500 people has a church fit for a city - the Baroque Parrocchiale Maria Assunta was built in the 18th Century and has a richly decorated interior with what has been called the finest selection of marble sculpture and statues in Piedmont. The road skirts the town to the north, avoiding the narrow streets, but the church should be visible over the surroundings rooftops. The next town we pass through is Brossasco where the road turns north-west to reach the middle of the community, then south-west to carry us further along the SP8. This require two corners to be rounded, but they don't look as though they'll cause any problems.
After 63.5km, the parcours reaches Melle. This village, which a hundred years ago had a population of almost 2500 people but is now home to less than 400, is located in a narrow gap between the forested hills to the north and those that have been gradually closing in from the south for some kilometres now; leaving no doubt that we're heading into the mountains. It's still a long way to the summit, but along this stretch the Tour has begun the long and challenging climb to the summit of Col Agnel, the highest point of this year's race.
|Pontechianale Lake in winter.|
To get up requires nine switchbacks and, once there, there's La Casse Déserte. This strange, lunar landscape, its name translating as The Broken Desert, has been called the most difficult section ever ridden in the Tour and is arguably more feared than Mont Ventoux. There are scrubby pine trees in the valley, but the steep slopes are pale and bare, giving the place an unearthly, lifeless appearance. It is undoubtedly one of the strangest places Nature has created anywhere in Europe. There's a monument up here, formed from a natural menhir, to Louison Bobet and Fausto Coppi, and a museum of Tour history - but very few cyclists ever make it here to visit.
|La Casse Déserte|
|Col du Galibier|
Predictions: There's at least a 90% chance that today will be won by a Schleck, an Evans or a Contador. This is the sort of stage upon which Andy Schleck excels and after a not-especially-brilliant few stages, he's got a lot to prove. His form doesn't seem what it was last year, but let's not forget just how good a climber he is - provided the fast descents don't get the better of him, he's in with a good chance in this one; not least of all because he can keep going when others cannot. The same is true of Frank, but if he's to win Andy will first need to be in poor form and second admit to it, sacrificing his own race to help his brother win.
Cadel Evans is a favourite of many - he's been climbing spectacularly well this year and is much more comfortable when descending than the Schlecks. He's also not so worried when the weather turns bad, so if there's still snow on Galibier he'll be in a much better position to cope with it.
However, Contador has to be the top choice today. Following a lack-lustre performance on the earlier climbs, either due to sandbagging or genuine fatigue from the Giro d'Italia, he's really found his legs. Added encouragement comes from the fact that, with a large portion of the cycling world turned against him following his troubles with anti-doping measures, he arguably has even more to prove than Andy does: few things say "screw you guys" than winning this stage and then providing a crystal-clear testing record for the entire race would. Also, Contador has an extremely skillful assistant in Sammy Sanchez, an amazing climber in his won right, who has sworn his aid.
Weather: Looking good for the majority of the parcours with plenty of sun and winds no more than 10kph in the lowlands - however, maximum temperatures could reach 28 degrees C which is getting a bit too warm for comfort. Weather forecasting becomes much more difficult at altitude and conditions can change rapidly in the mountains, but at present it's also looking reasonable for Agnel and d'Izoard - though winds of up to 30kmph at the summits could cause problems. Galibier is a different matter - the summit is predicted to be misty and there are still some slushy patches following the snowfall two days ago. No new snow is predicted, but a 40kmph wind and 6 degrees C ambient temperature will make it feel very cold and could cause muscle aches and pains; especially for the climbers who have far lower levels of body fat than other cyclists.