The Tour de France race organizers gave fans a real treat with Stage 18: not just one riveting climb up the mythical Alpe D'Huez, featuring 21 hairpin turns, but two, with the finish line at the end of an unprecedented second ascent up one of the most famous mountains in racing.
If you're not versed with the Alpe D'Huez, get familiar, courtesy of Podium Cafe. The first ever mountaintop finish of a Tour stage came at the Alpe in 1952, and each of its 21 hairpins are named after a rider -- or two, now that they've done the stage more than 21 times. In full, it's a climb of 13.8 kilometers, with a grade of 8.1 percent. It's a monster, and this time, in the 100th edition of the Tour, and after skipping the mountain last year, riders will have to conquer it twice this time around.
But perhaps the hardest part of Thursday's stage won't be the two climbs, which should wipe out any racers without superb mountain credentials. It might be the descent between the two: after first climbing 12.4 miles at an 8.4 percent grade to reach 1,765 meters, the bikers will get a quick respite from climbing before summitting Col de Sarenne, which will bring them to the stage's highest point, 1,999 meters.
After that could be where the trouble starts for riders: an extraordinarily steep descent, a nose-dive to get to the bottom of the Alpe D'Huez for a second climb. Lots of riders are skilled climbers, but its an entirely different skill to manage one's ride on the way down, with gravity pulling you and lots of bikes jockeying for space. It will be technically tricky, and perhaps a tad precarious.
Then, the riders will prepare for the second ascent of Alpe D'Huez, 13.8 kilometers at an 8.1 gradient, with cycling's elites hoping to etch their name among the greats who have won the stage.
Here's the map of the stage, which starts at Gap:
And here's the stage profile:
After winning the time trial in Stage 17, Chris Froome holds a 4:34 lead, and due to strong performances on climbs thus far, holds both the yellow and polka dot jackets. Stage 18's two climbs will give him an opportunity to hold onto both, and with only three stages to go after Thursday, he can start to ice off a potential tour victory.