Tour preview: Alpe d'Huez awaits

Frank Schleck's last hope for yellow in Paris

Luxembourg champion Frank Schleck can be forgiven for looking forward to the final climbing stage up Alpe d'Huez on the Tour de France Wednesday.

The Tour de France yellow jersey is set to be decided on the final alpine stage of the race on Wednesday after a dramatic 16th stage, which left CSC still in control of the race. Schleck finished the 157km stage from Cueno in Italy to Jausiers with his seven-second lead on Austrian Bernhard Kohl intact, with Australian Cadel Evans in third at eight seconds.

Spaniard Carlos Sastre, Schleck's teammate at the CSC team, is fourth at 49 seconds, while Denis Menchov, one of the day's biggest losers, is now at 1:13  behind Schleck after losing time on the day's final descent.

The standings could change dramatically on the 17th stage, which features two unclassified climbs before the 14km climb to the summit finish of Alpe d'Huez, after Schleck's CSC team failed to eliminate Evans from the equation.

Evans, of Silence-Lotto, was one of the big winners of the day after two of the riders expected to challenge him in the race's final time trial, American Christian Vande Velde and Menchov, both lost time on the second of three days in the Alps.

Garmin team leader Vande Velde failed to keep pace with the CSC-led chasing peloton on the way over the Restefond climb and he eventually trailed in to drop to sixth place overall at 3:15 behind Schleck.

Menchov trailed in at 2:03 behind stage winner Cyril Dessel of the AG2R team, although crucially the Russian lost 35 seconds to all his big rivals.Schleck will approach the race to the summit finish of Alpe d'Huez burning with ambition - and with the experience of having claimed his first stage win there in 2006.

Wednesday's 17th stage, however, is not for the faint-hearted.

After Tuesday's ride over two killer 'unclassified' ascents, the final day of climbing will take a much bigger toll on the peloton, mainly because it is harder but also because of the accumulation of efforts from the day before.

Starting in Embrun in the Alps, the race heads gradually upwards before the gradients begin taking a further toll during the 20.9km climb to the summit of the Galibier pass.

A short descent then leads the peloton over another Tour regular - the Col du Telegraphe - and that descent leads to the foot of the Croix de Fer climb. At 29 km long, and so difficult that it is 'unclassified' by organisers, it could stage the first skirmishes in the yellow jersey battle.

Whoever emerges unscathed from the Croix de Fer will have to dig deep for the climb which thousands of Tour de France fans look forward to every year. The Alpe d'Huez's 21 hairpin bends, stretched over 13.8km at an average gradient of 7.9 percent, are famous the world over.

But Schleck is not the only one looking for a boost.

The Alpe has come to be known as the Dutch mountain thanks to the exploits of several Dutch riders in the past, and annually hosts a noisy band of orange-clad supporters of the Dutch Rabobank team.

"It's practically a Dutch climb," said Menchov. "And I'm sure there will be plenty of Dutch fans there to support me."

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 

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