The queen stage interchangeably refers to the stage of a race with the highest altitude point of the race, or the hardest stage of the race. Sometimes both apply, and it looks like that will be the case as the peloton tackle the steep slopes and thin air of the Alps on the Col de la Madeleine and the Col de la Loze.
The Col de la Madeleine is well-known within the Tour de France, it has been used 25 times before in the race, though, there are a variety of different routes to the summit. The 2020 Tour will take the road from La Chambre, and climb a whopping 1,531 metres vertically from the township (though the climb proper starts a little bit outside the village) over the 17.1 kilometres long ascent at an average gradient of 8.4 per cent.
The Col de la Madeleine is a significant enough test by itself, but this year it has been combined with a new partner the Col de la Loze. The recently laid bike path will take riders to the peak of the 2,304 metre-high summit on what can barely be called a road, though it is nice tarmac.
The climb is inconsistent, with what riders refer to as steep 'ramps' of significant gradient followed by flatter sections. These ramps hit their hardest points in the final kilometres of the climb, with a steepest pinch of 23 per cent. The whole climb is 21.5 kilometres long at 7.8 per cent, but due to its varying nature, it should prove even harder and provide some significant gaps among the contenders.
What the contenders say:
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) currently has a 40-second buffer in the fight for the yellow jersey over countryman Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates). He wasn't pushed too hard on Stage 16, with the pressure only put on briefly at the conclusion to the stage into Villard-de-Lans.
"Today everything was under control, we’re still in yellow, but tomorrow will be nicer to watch," said Roglič . “I think it’s the queen stage of the Tour, we finish at the highest point of the race this year and it’s just crazy hard. The last five kilometres are really difficult, it’ll be a fight for every second."
Roglič conceded that the 21-year-old Slovenian Pogačar, currently sitting in second overall, was climbing the strongest in the race and would be the one to watch.
"Tadej is the closest rival, and I expect he’ll try to attack," Roglič said. "The other guys will probably look after each other. Looking back at the mountain stages, normally Tadej was the strongest, so I need to focus on the best guys, focus on myself to do the best job, and that’s all I can do."
Roglič was posed a query as to whether he'd prefer to see a breakaway take the stage win and the bonus seconds that accompany the top few positions, but was non-commital.
"That’s a hard question, it just depends, when you win it’s good to take a bonus, and when you don’t it’s not so good," he said. "It’ll be hard to control everything that happens, and everybody knows that the last climb is very hard."
"On the other hand, it [your time gap] is never enough," he concluded. "Even if I had five minutes, it’d never be enough. You always want more."
Pogačar didn't really let fly on the finale on Stage 16, though he chased down a late attack by Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) to ensure that he didn't cede any time in the GC fight.
"Today was a good day, a nice warm-up for tomorrow which will probably be the queen stage," said Pogačar. "Tomorrow we’ll see some splits."
The young Slovenian might be one of the contenders to 'crack' on the steep slopes and altitude of the climb in the third week of a Grand Tour, but to date, he's shown no sign of being anything other than one of the strongest climbers in the race.
"I feel good physically," he said. "It's the third week, so everyone is exhausted. Day by day, the legs are getting more and more tired, but I hope I have something left for the final."
The climb of the Col de la Loze looms large in the mind of Pogačar, who has conducted a reconnaissance of the climb.
"I think everyone saw the Col de la Loze," said Pogačar. "It’s one of the hardest climbs I’ve done. We’ll see some time splits for sure and some mix-up in the general classification."
“I think you can kill yourself if you try early, especially if you go early on Madeleine and suffer to the finish. I will see how the others will feel on the climb to Meribel and then on the Col de la Loze, we’ll see who has the legs and who doesn’t.”
The 2020 Tour de France continues with the brutal 170km stage from Grenoble to Méribel (Col de La Loze) - the highest point of this year's Tour is on the menu. Stage 17 begins via SBS On Demand and the SBS ŠKODA Tour Tracker from 8:05pm (AEST) on Wednesday, with the television broadcast set to start at 9:35pm on SBS.