The Essentials

■ StOean-de-Maurienne hosts a stage finish for the first time. It hosted the start of the infamous 2006 stage to Morzine, 'won' by Floyd Landis.

■ The Col de la Madeleine is the highest Alpine pass of this year's Tour and the third-highest of the whole race, behind the Tourmalet (2,115m) and the Port de Pailheres

(2,001m). It's also the longest climb of the whole race, at 25.4km.

■ The Madeleine makes its 23rd appearance in the race — it's been five years since it was last used

■ 83 KoM points are on offer today, the second-highest stage of the race. Stage 16 offers 90.

■ The Col de la Colombiere has been used in four of the last five Tours, the exception being 2008.

toughest stages of the entire Tour, which means that whether it comes early in the race or not, the better climbers have to target it or risk leaving their race-winning tactics until the final week.

WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN?

The early climbs are a gift to King of the Mountains contenders — there are 43 cheap points available in the first 100 kilometres.

The Madeleine, on the other hand, will be one of the best chances for climbers to gain time —• it's highly unlikely that there will be any more than six or seven riders together at the top. Solo or small group attacks have a decent chance of sticking — the descent and valley favour chasers, but will any teams have enough riders left after the Madeleine to marshal a pursuit?

WHERE ARE WE?

In the heart of the Alps. The day starts in Morzine and ends several valleys away in St-Jean-de-Maurienne. St-Jean is a masochist's heaven — to its north lies the precipitous unpleasantness that is the Col de la Madeleine; go west and it won't be long before you're faced with the Col du Glandon; while the Col de la Croix de Fer starts to the south. And east? The feet of the Télégraphe and Galibier are just along the valley.

WHAT'S ON THE ROUTE?

There are more kilometres of categorised climbs on this stage than any other— 66, compared to 64.8 for stage 16. This means it's going to be fairly unpleasant. And when we say 'fairly', we actually mean excruciatingly.

The stage breaks down into two halves, neither of which involves much in the way of flat roads. The climbing begins after 25 kilometres, with the Col de la Colombiere, from the harder north side. Then come the Col des Aravis and Col des Saisies in quick succession. There's no recuperation — each climb starts at the bottom of the previous one.

From the summit of the Saisies comes the eye of the hurricane, a 50km respite of descent and valley roads. But then comes part two — the 25km climb of the Madeleine. Pedants may point out that there's actually a two-kilometre false flat downhill nine kilometres in, but all this does is force riders to change into the big ring and ride at 35kph, which is the last thing that they want to do.

There's a long, steep descent to La Chambre (the average gradient of the south side is eight per cent), followed by 13 kilometres of drag up to St-Jean-de-Maurienne.

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