It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that, while Alberto Contador has the yellow jersey well in his grasp, the second and third places on the podium will be determined on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. Barring a complete meltdown, Saxo Bank rider Andy Schleck's 1'30" lead over Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Bradley Wiggins and his brother Frank Schleck should be enough to give him the second step of the podium.
So, Lance, Andreas, Bradley and Frank, who are separated by less than 40 seconds on the overall classification, will be riding hard, digging deep and generally throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to be top three in Paris.
Of those four, Frank Schelck has been climbing the best and appears to have the upper hand. However, this is the last difficult day in the Tour so no rider can claim to be holding back to be able to fight another day. It is "another day" when we get to Ventoux and because the stakes are so high, the attacks and the emotions will be at near chaotic level.
The climb of Ventoux from the quaint village of Bedoin is split into three distinct sections. The first 2.5 miles (4km) are flat or very gentle(3-4%) climbing. The meat of the ascent is the next 6 miles(10km) where the road is very steep (9.5-10%) average grade, the terrain features are a monotonous forest of trees and the road winds uphill in a seemingly unending series of shallow turns. There are no switchbacks to break up the monotony, only the pain.
When the climb reaches Chalet Reynard (House of the Fox) the terrain escapes the forest and enters a lunar landscape for the final 5 miles (8km) to the summit. The gradient kicks back to a manageable 8%, but above the trees it can be hot, windy or both. Overall the 13-mile(22km) ascent climbs 5300'(1600m).
What will the podium contenders do on the climb? Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck should just follow the wheels of Armstrong, Kloden, Wiggins and Frank Schleck. Andy might do some work to help his brother get on the podium. Likewise, unless he goes off the reservation as he did in the final few kilometers of the Colombiere, Alberto Contador is in the unique position to help an attack by either Lance or Andreas Kloden succeed by helping set tempo.
The gap between the four contending for the final spot on the podium is small enough that they can wait to attack after reaching Chalet Reynard. Attacking during the steep section below is risky because the chances of blowing up and losing contact is very real.
However, since there are four riders so closely bunched, the guy who wants to stand on the third step of the podium will, most likely, have to drop all three of his rivals. It might be possible to drop one or two, but dropping all three will require either a vicious attack(s) or a very fast tempo and that might only be able to be accomplished by attacking early, on the steep section, and not on the slopes above Chalet Reynard.
My prediction is that Frank Schleck, aided by his brother, will attack on the steep section. He is behind the other three timewise so he has to drop them all. He is climbing well and is probably the best of the four at going for a long attack.
Since Lance is ahead of his three rivals on time, he just has to mark all three of them and make sure nobody gets away. He has said that, after Verbier, his strategy is to not go with sharp accelerations, but to ride his pace and try to "diesel" up to the attackers. I think Lance will have to respond directly to any attacks on Mont Ventoux. He cannot afford, both physically and mentally, to let any of his rivals go up the road.
Bradley Wiggins is the big unknown. Undoubtedly, the whole Garmin-Slipstream team will be working to set him up. He has climbed very well in both the Alps and the Pyrenees, but I think he will really have to go to some places he has never gone before in his cycling career to get the third spot on the podium. Somewhere in his soul is the key. Will he find it?
Andreas Kloden is the big unknown. Obviously, after Contador's needless attack on the Colombiere there is some new disharmony on the team. It is unclear where he will be headed next year, but if he is on the short list to join Lance's new team, he may be asked to ride in support of Armstrong.
But, heck, forget all the speculation and just bring on the race. I can't wait.
No one will ever say that Italian professional Eros Poli was a great climber. At 6'4" and 195lbs he was built for power on the flats witness his Olympic gold medal in the Team Time Trial. But, in 1994, Eros tried something that which few have ever been successful. Poli tried to beat all the Tour's best climbers up and over Mont Ventoux. It was going to take a unique strategy of Eros was to lead over the Giant of Provence and then then 20 miles of flat roads to the finish in Carpentras.
Bruce: you needed to get a huge lead to be able to be first over Ventoux.
Eros: At the base I had 24 minutes. When I escaped it was 100 km of flat to the base of the climb. I said to myself 'if you want to win you need 24 minutes' because normally I lose one minute per kilometer and the climb is 22 kilometers so I will lose 22 minutes. So, I thought I needed another two minutes to be sure
to the finish. I had four minutes lead at the top on Pantani. With five kilometers to go I had a five minute advantage on the peloton so I said 'OK. It is done'.
Bruce: what was it like climbing Mont Ventoux? The steep section in the middle is very hard.
Eros: It is very difficult. I did it this year with a group of Scottish guys and I thought "how could I do it that day? How could I go up that mountain?" It is so difficult. There are no switchbacks, no corners. Just up, up, up in almost a straight line. There is no possibility of a rest. No possibility of recuperation. It is long. It is an incredible mountain. It is the biggest mountain in the Tour de France.
Bruce: Now that you are retired what are you doing?
Eros: I work in insurance. Sometimes I organize holiday trips by the bike near where I live. I live in Verona near the beautiful Lake Garda. I organize trips, especially for American people and Australians.