It is impossible to say whether the final week of this year's Tour de France is the toughest ever, but it is unprecedented in recent years.
The concentration of mountain stages in the final seven days before the ceremonial run-in to the Champs Elysées makes the mind boggle. The pain begins on Sunday with Mont Ventoux, then continues from Wednesday to Saturday, with a tough, short time trial including two second-category climbs, the double ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez on Thursday, two more super-category climbs on Friday, and finally the brutal, steep ascent of Annecy‑Semnoz.
The spate of mountain stages has been inspired by the spirit of the late Laurent Fignon, a double winner of the race in the 1980s who succumbed to cancer in 2010. Fignon criticised the Tour organisers back in the 1990s for diluting the mountains, and told the current Tour organiser, Christian Prudhomme, that in his view the key to achieving a "decision" in the final week was to have three mountain stages back to back. Prudhomme admitted that he had Fignon in mind when putting together the multiple mountain stages that are set to push the riders' bodies and minds to the limit before the end of the 100th Tour.
The American Jim Ochowicz, head of Cadel Evans's BMC team, with 26 Tours behind him, believes this year's final week is "in the top three or four hardest since I've been at the race".
"There are lots of historic mountains," said Ochowicz. "One of them, l'Alpe d'Huez is being raced twice in the same day, plus an uphill time trial." One of the race's oldest riders, the Australian Stuart O'Grady, who is on his 17th Tour, says that the twin climbs of the Alpe fits into a pattern: the Tour is getting more extreme in its demands.
"You tend to block them out like a computer erasing the hard drive, so I don't know if it's the hardest, but it's super-tough," said O'Grady. "The last few Tours have been pushing the limits. It makes for good television, it's going to be action-packed, but it's going to be one of the toughest for the riders. Even the guys going for the overall classification won't be thrilled at doing l'Alpe d'Huez twice. It's more and more about the spectacle – the last few years we've done the Tourmalet and Galibier twice, one day after the other."
Ochowicz believes that all this means there will be absolutely no margin for error in the final seven days. "Any mistake will be multiplied tenfold," he said. "Recovery will be a big factor, and so will the number of team-mates a leader has with him." He has a gleam in his eye when he describes the problems that can hit a leader who is isolated, as Chris Froome was on the second stage in the Pyrenees.
"It could be 100 different things – the wrong break with the right people in it, a group of guys who decide it's all in their interest to ride hard. There's a physical side and a practical side – if you are on your own, what happens if you puncture, or you need someone to give you water if you are alone out there. Sky have some great athletes but the numbers can work against you. You can win with seven riders in a team, but you have to adjust for it."
The double climb of l'Alpe d'Huez is "physically hard but mentally tough as well". Ochowicz believes the descent off the Alpe via the Col de Sarenne could cause as much damage as the twin climbs. "It's treacherous, perhaps the first descent of the race that has real meaning. It's harder than the uphill because it's tricky and fast, you're trying to recover, to close down a break, or to get away." The descent has drawn persistent criticisms from the riders - who sampled it during the recent Dauphine Libere - and the organisers will hope it is negotiated without any mishaps.
Garmin-Sharp's directeur sportif, Charly Wegelius, who has only recently retired from racing, says that this Tour reminds him of the Giro d'Italia, "because it is so weighted to the last week". Like Ochowicz, he's intrigued by the chinks that have been showing in Sky's carapace compared to last year. "The situation of the race is good for the neutral spectator – there's a good chance that things can get lively. There are hidden surprises like the Annecy stage [on Saturday] – it's intense and short, and if anyone has any energy left there, they could do some damage."
Wegelius says that as a rider, there will be no point holding back at any point in the final phase: "You've got to take that final week day by day, I know that's a football cliché but you can't save any energy. You just have to see what reserves you have on a given day." O'Grady expects the teams who put Froome under pressure in the Pyrenees - Movistar, Garmin-Sharp, Belkin, Saxo Bank – to repeat that in the Alps. "Some teams have to lay it on the line. Froome was isolated in the second Pyrenean stage, but the teams weren't ready for it. They had a tactic, and they weren't able to adapt it on the day. They had an opportunity but weren't prepared for Sky to have a bad day. At some point they've got to go in again."
Wegelius cautions that a hyper-tough route does not necessarily make for a thrilling race. "When it's tough like that, it can cancel itself out because people don't have the courage to lay it on the line. When you look at the penultimate mountain stage, for example, it looks scary because of the Glandon coming at the very start, but maybe nothing will happen."
Both Wegelius and O'Grady feel that the final week is having an effect on the racing this week. "It's all so cramped together next week that you need to save whatever energy you can now, because how the guys do next week will depend on what they have left." O'Grady feels that the final week is so fearsome that the riders are putting less energy than usual into the suicide moves and desperate attempts to win the stage that usually mark the "transitional stages" between the two mountain ranges. "There is less attacking on stages when we know there is going to be a sprint, because the guys are conserving every ounce of energy. Before you might have had attacks for the first hour, but everyone knows there is no point riding in kamikaze breakaways unless they are riding for the publicity. It's definitely different from other years."
As Friday's stage to Saint-Amand-Montrond showed, the other teams are constantly looking for openings to attack Froome when he appears to be short of team-mates, and the final week will offer them plenty of opportunities. "Chris is without doubt the top rider on every terrain, but you have the feeling that Sky haven't got a favourable wind like last year," says Wegelius, echoed by Ochowicz: "Sky's leader is strong enough to do it all by himself but shit happens."
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010