Pinerolo: Three-times champion Alberto Contador, with ground to make up on his rivals, needs to draw on his fine climbing skills on Thursday in the first of two breath-sapping stages that could go a long way to deciding this year`s Tour de France winner.
Stage 18, a punishing 200.5-km trek, ends at 2,645 metres above ground level on top of the Col du Galibier, after going to the summit of the Col d`Agnel (2,744m) and the Col d`Izoard (2,360m).
Contador, arguably the best climber in the race, lies sixth overall 3:15 behind France`s Thomas Voeckler, who is expecting to lose his yellow jersey on Thursday.
The Spaniard, however, needs to claw back a near two-minute deficit on second-placed Cadel Evans and although the Australian does not fare as well as Contador in the high mountains, he will be a tough nut to crack.
The Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy, are third and fourth, 1:22 and 2:36 adrift of Voeckler respectively, with Spain`s Samuel Sanchez in fifth place 16 seconds ahead of Contador.
"It`s the `Queen stage` but the last part of the Galibier is very open and what will happen is going to depend on the wind," said Contador.
Andy Schleck said it could be make or break for the leading contenders on Thursday.
"It`s the decisive stage. Over 200 km, we will climb three times above 2,000 metres. It`s going to be the stage of the Tour," he said.
Voeckler, who has hung onto his yellow jersey for nine days, was pessimistic about his chances of retaining his overall lead.
"I could not follow them (the overall favourites) in the descent (into Pinerolo on Wednesday), I will probably not be able to follow them in the climb tomorrow," the Frenchman.