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July 15 post: The French Alps may be the focus of this year's race, but stage 14 and its finish at Plateau de Beille will be an epic century (100 miles) through one of the best recreational cycling areas in the world, the Ariège Pyrénées.

Starting from Saint-Gaudens, hosting its 13th Tour stage, the race will head southeast hitting some the hardest climbs in the Ariège Pyrénées. The climbs of this region aren't as high or famous as the Tourmalet and Aubisque to the west but they undulate more and have steep sections which will zap your legs starting with the short but steep (or sweet) Col de Portet-d'Aspet at km 27 (4.3km @ 9.7%).

During the midpoint of this stage, riders will tackle two picturesque and tough cat 1 climbs, Col de la Core and Col d'Agnes (reports and photos). Although, the landmark climbs of this region, these two climbs are unlikley to decide the race. Instead, they will zap the strength of the GC contenders before the summit finish on Plateau de Beille (15.8km @ 7.9%), one of the more recent and popular Tour finishes. It's very steep at the bottom and then a steady grind the rest of the way. In total, there are six categorized climbs on this stage which you can explore in Google Earth and Streetview (see above).

History has shown us that to win at Plateau de Beille, you have to be the Tour champion. Since it was first included in 1998, Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong (twice) and Alberto Contador have been the only winners here and all three have gone on to win the Tour de France on all four occasions. That could all change this year because Cadel Evans is looking like the man to beat, but he isn't likely to win this stage. If Alberto Contador is going to get back into GC contention this year then he really needs to have a good stage.

Often at this time of the year, the temperatures in this region can be sweltering with high humidity, but temperatures have been lower throughout France this summer. Saturday's weather in this region will be perfect in the lower parts (70F/21C).

Up and down, up and down... Stage 14 will be fun to watch. — Steve

Col de la Core, Ariege: touring report and photos —
Col d'Agnes and Col d'Escots, Ariege: touring report and photos —
Contador anticipates a return to form, says Schlecks ‘must attack’velonation
Contador anticipates a return to form, says Schlecks ‘must attack’velonation
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Evans brushes off ghosts of Plateau de Beille's past cyclingnews