LYON, France — Now, the Tour de France goes sharply uphill, much more sharply than last year. More likely than not, the champion who will be crowned next Sunday in Paris will be the rider who copes best with this last week of vertical torture.
The pain starts on Sunday on the horrid climb of Mont Ventoux. The barren white mountain rises from the sunbaked plains of Provence. The 181 brave souls who have survived the 2,325 kilometers (1,444 miles) ridden so far, out of 198 who started two weeks ago, will see the climb coming long before they hit it, so there will be plenty of time for apprehension, for butterflies in the stomach, to build.
The forecast is for uninterrupted sunshine, so the riders will find no relief from the weather either. As if the climb itself wasn't hard enough, they will already have ridden 221 kilometers (137 miles), setting off in the mid-morning, before even reaching the foot of the mountain in the late afternoon. So they will be tired for the ascension, too.
Sunday's stage — a grand total of 242.5 kilometers (150 miles), including the final climb — is the longest of this Tour and starts in the Rhone valley town of Givors.
"Ventoux is always scary," said Garmin-Sharp rider David Millar, a veteran of 12 Tours. "It's going to be horrible for everyone."
One of the big questions is whether yellow jersey-holder Chris Froome will zoom or go boom on the climb, perhaps extending his race lead if he has a good day or losing it if he has a disastrous one.
The Briton is an excellent climber. The steepness and length of the Ventoux ascent should suit him. But because the climb is so tough, even top riders can lose bags of time if they wilt. Ventoux has the hardest rating for Tour climbs. In around one hour of sustained physical effort, the Tour will go from an altitude of 300 meters to 1,900 meters (the equivalent of a vertical mile). The uphill goes on for 21 kilometers (13 miles) to an old weather station at the summit.
Froome is bracing for his main rivals, who need to make up lost time, to try to ride away from him. If they succeed, leaving him far behind, Froome's Tour could be ruined. But they will be equally wary of him. If they tire too early and Froome then powers away, they may never catch him again before Paris. It could be fascinating cat-and-mouse. Or Froome and his challengers, tired from recent exertions, could spend the ascent mainly eyeballing each other.
"A lot of people have reason to attack now. A lot of people spent energy in the last couple of days so it will be an interesting one," said Froome, the Tour runner-up last year.
Saturday's stage was a hilly 191-kilometer (119-mile) ride to the city of Lyon, France's gourmet capital. With the main Tour protagonists saving themselves for Sunday, a group of 18 lower-ranked riders broke away. They included Matteo Trentin, who perfectly timed his sprint finish to win his first Tour stage and the first for an Italian in the 100th race.
Rolling in more than seven minutes later with the bulk of the pack, Froome gave a few brief television interviews but skipped the usual daily news conference for the race leader so he could get to his hotel earlier and rest up for the Ventoux stage.
With 14 of 21 stages completed, Froome's closest rival is Bauke Mollema — a surprise because the Dutch rider has completed only one Tour, finishing 69th in 2011 and abandoning on Stage 11 last year. He is 2 minutes, 28 seconds off the lead.
Alberto Contador, the 2007 and '09 champion stripped of his 2010 win for a failed doping test, is 2:45 from Froome, placed third. Another danger for Froome on Ventoux could be Nairo Quintana, 5:18 back in eighth. The Colombian climber already jousted with Froome in the Pyrenees.
Contador said the first time he climbed Ventoux, admittedly not in top shape, "my heart almost came out of my mouth."
"The first part is a steep slope," he said. "The second part is exposed to a lot of wind, mainly blowing toward you.
"If you have a bad day on this climb you can lose a lot of minutes."
British rider Tom Simpson collapsed and died on Ventoux during the 1967 Tour. Ventoux is only the start of a brutal final week of uphills. From Sunday to next Saturday — the Tour will grind up 27 rated ascents, six of them with the hardest "uncategorized" rating given to Ventoux.
That amounts to 224 more kilometers (139 miles) of climbs.
Judging by the thousands of people who turned out on the roadside to cheer on Saturday, the atmosphere up Ventoux promises to be electric on Sunday, also Bastille Day.
"It's such a legendary mountain," said Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski, 4:44 from Froome in seventh. "I'm a little bit scared about it."
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