TASTE OF THE TOUR: The Izoard pass and an Alpine fortress
SERRE-CHEVALIER, France (AP) For the first time in the race's history, a Tour de France stage will finish at the summit of the Col d'Izoard, the scene of some of the race's most memorable feats.
Unfortunately for riders, oxygen masks are banned on the race. They could certainly do with some extra help during the long, steep climb up a mountain that peaks at an altitude of 2,360 meters in rarefied air.
The Izoard has been climbed 33 times in the race's history. The likes of Gino Bartali, Louison Bobet, Fausto Coppi and Federico Bahamontes have all been the first to reach the summit, and the Izoard is also where Frenchman Bernard Thevenet made Tour great Eddy Merckx crack with his relentless attacks during the 1975 race.
But a finish at its rocky summit is a first, offering a sumptuous setting for the final mountain stage of the 104th edition of cycling's biggest event.
Here is a sporting, gastronomic and cultural guide to Stage 18 in the Alps:
BAGUETTE AND BUTTER: Some call it the ''queen stage.'' Others an ''Alpine mammoth.'' Thursday's stage 18 will offer no respite to exhausted riders who having already covered more than 3,000 kilometers.
The 179.5-kilometer (111.5-mile) trek starts in the town of Briancon and heads south along the shores of the picturesque Lac de Serre-Poncon and its pristine waters. After the first difficulty of the day, the Category 3 climb up the Cote des Demoiselles Coiffees, the peloton will then tackle the Col de Vars, which features a testing steep section. But the day's choice morsel is the 14.1-kilometer ascent of the Izoard via the Casse Desserte, where a memorial honors the feats of cycling greats Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet.
PLAT DU JOUR: Fine blue and raclette cheeses are made in the remote Queyras region to help you get through long winter evenings. But the true local specialty is the Guillestrine, a pie with a thin crust stuffed with fruit jam and covered with a criss cross of pastry strips. Ideal at snack time.
VIN DU JOUR: The riders pass through Queyras, which is known for its beautiful natural park, the highest in Europe. As the local farmers don't grow grapes, the best option is to try one of the many local beers. The micro-brewery La Queyrassine offers a good range of non-pasteurized and non-filtered beers made with spring water at a reasonable price.
HISTORY: Down in the valley near the town of Guillestre sits Mont-Dauphin, a 17th-century stronghold that forms part of the fortifications of Vauban, which are classified by the UNESCO.
Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban was a military engineer who designed a double line of fortifications along France's borders under the reign of Louis XIV. Mont-Dauphin was named in honor of the King's son, the Grand Dauphin. The stronghold was never besieged.
STAT OF THE DAY: 75 - In kilometers per hour, the speed reached by riders during Wednesday's 28-kilometer (17-mile) descent leading to the ski station of Serre-Chevalier.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: ''I want people to remember me as a rider who tried things, who was courageous.'' - Two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador, after he was awarded the prize for the most combative rider of the day.
NEXT ORDER: Friday's Stage 19 takes the peloton out of the mountains for the longest stage of this year's Tour, a 222.5-kilometer (138-mile) trek from Embrun to Salon-de-Provence. One for the sprinters.