|The Savoyan flag
|La Maison Penchée
Things are very different in Europe since the EU and nowadays crossing borders between constituent states rarely even requires a passport, so Modane has grown wealthy from the tourists who base themselves here due to the easy access to the Alps of France and Italy - usefully providing employment for those residents who are not cut out for work in the particle physics research laboratories in the area. We leave the town along the D1006 heading west, a non-technical stretch of road sandwiched between the river to the north and railway tracks to the south with a large roundabout on the western perimeter. Another roundabout marks the little hamlet of Freney, home to 85 people, and the large industrial site stuck right next door - if there's one thing the French love, it's an industrial site placed slap in the middle of an area of great natural beauty. A third - insanely complex - roundabout with six exits and a fly-over carries the peloton onwards, the road sharing the river bank with the A43 and passing by a rocky gorge, more industry and a little village named La Praz - the site of the pretty and unmistakably alpine Villa Paul Héroult. Just to the south, Pointe de la Sandoniere reaches almost 2900m.
|Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, artfully cropped so as not to
show the aluminium works which bring prosperity and
ugliness in equal parts to the town.
|Fort du Telegraphe
The road follows the ridge for a while, offering views best described as stupendous, then reaches the tiny village called Le Col that has grown up chiefly on the money spent by the cyclists and motorcyclists who come up here and passes Les Granges, which consists largely of chalets for skiers but also has a tiny, picturesque chapel with a single bell. 4.5km onwards and over 100m downwards from the Col is Valloire which has grown to become the largest skiing resort in the Maurienne region, but unlike most ski centres the town has managed to retain much of its traditional alpine appearance and Savoyard character. There are, of course, many modern chalets; but there are much older buildings located about the town too, such as the Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption which can be described as sumptuously decorated even by the standards of Baroque churches. There is also a ruined Chateau Saint-Pierre, but little remains of it.
As soon as Valloire is left behind, the parcours in on the slopes of the Col du Galibier; climbing today from the opposite direction to Andy Schleck's incredible winning ride yesterday and this side is rated considerably harder. The road travels south for a while, connecting an assortment of villages, before turning left and then right as it crosses a bridge over the rock-strewn stream. It then stays fairly level until a pair of hairpins take it up 20m or so, then begins to climb more rapidly on the approach to a small bridge near a barn where it turns south-east. A series of wide bends takes it between high cliffs which look a little like those along the Casse Deserte yesterday and towards a switchback combined with a bridge where the altitude reaches 2000m.
|Col du Galibier
The parcours continues downhill to the Lac du Chambon and passes through two tunnels on the northern shore before a sharp left hand corner takes it along the dam at the western side, then around an outcrop and down through the forest into Le Freney-d'Oisans, at which point there is 25.5km to go. The road out clings to the side of a near-vertical cliff, passing through a tunnel and past a look-out which offers stunning views up the valley before climbing up, around and back down a rocky promontory overlooking another artificial lake and Le Clapier, which is reached by means of a bridge over the dam's outflow. Immediately north of the village in the Alpe d-Huez, rising rapidy from the lake to over 2100m.
|The 21 hairpins en route to the summit
of Alpe d'Huez.
The Alpe acts as a stage finish this year for the first time since 2008, having been unusually absent on the schedule for the two years up until now, and makes a welcome return. Getting to the top takes in an incredible 21 hairpins, each named after riders who have won a stage there - though since 2001 it's become necessary to start adding the names of recent winners to those who gave their names to the lower bends in years gone by - that year, the lowest hairpin became known as the Coppi-Armstrong. As one of the most famous climbs in the Tour there is guaranteed to be vast crowds of spectators along this section, all hoping to see the rider who, upon winning this stage, may also win the Tour.
|Cadel's turn to win today?
Cadel worked hard yesterday, pulling himself and Thomas Voeckler all the way up Galibier; but he's a strong rider and looking better than ever this year which puts him in a better position than anyone else to defeat the Schlecks. His style is the complete opposite of theirs, brute strength to their almost balletic grace, but they are equally matched in terms of ability. As a wildcard, how about Contador? He's not going to be at all pleased about his ride yesterday, during which he appeared to crack and was unable to respond to his Luxembourger rival. But Contador has up days and down days - if he's having an up day today, there might not be anyone who can catch him.
DEVIL WATCH: There's really no need for discussion today - he'll be on one of those hairpins going up Alpe d'Huez. Remember, all you goodly folk - if you see tridents painted on the road, the Devil lurketh somewhere nearby.