Two definitive stages remain in the 2015 Tour de France before the final trot around the Champs-Élysées, and while Stage 20's climb up Alpe d'Huez has been the most anticipated day of the Tour, Stage 19 may be the most important. Chris Froome has chased down every challenge he has face this Tour. If anyone still has any ambition of taking the Maillot Jaune, they'll need to commit to their attacks wholeheartedly and immediately because time is running out.
Though Stage 19 is just 138 kilometers in length -- the second-shortest among the Tour's non-time trial stages -- it will test riders immediately. The stage begins on a Category 1 climb that should winnow out all non-climbers, making the sprint point on the other side rather superfluous.
Then 60 kilometers through the stage, riders hit the Hors Categorie Croix de Fer, rated as the hardest climb in the Tour by Podium Cafe. The climb comes in the middle of the stage, technically leaving riders time to recover, but the climb is so tough that it should ween out all but the strongest legs. The stage then ends on a Category 1 climb up to La Toussiuire -- you know only the eighth toughest climb of the Tour.
General classification contenders have to attack now. Albert Contador and Vincenzo Nibali certainly will, but it's unclear whether they have the legs to be taken seriously. Nairo Quintana might, but does he have the gusto? Movistar has been biding its time to spring the plucky young Colombian, perhaps to a fault. A 3:10 gap to first place may simply be too much to conquer. Maybe Movistar believes it still has a chance, but there's no way that this situation was what it had in mind when it first made its 2015 plans.
Common sense says that this is Froome or Quintana's stage to lose, though a wild and desperate Nibali or Contador, a rejuvenated Romain Bardet and a furious Jakob Fuglsang are all non-zero threats. Friday should be an eventful day. We'll have to wait and see if its promise comes to fruition. Thus far the fireworks have been duds.
NBCSN will show Stage 19 live beginning at 7 a.m. ET with coverage ending at noon. The NBC Sports Live Extra app, available to mobile users, and NBC's subscription-only Tour de France web package will handle live streaming.
Stage coverage starts at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN
Announcers: Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen
Mobile: NBC Sports Live Extra app with an appropriate cable subscription
Computer: NBC's Tour de France web package is available for a fee