For Tour riders, mountains hold special significance
The Alps don't sneak up on you.
The Alps don't sneak up on you; they give you plenty of time to fully appreciate their size and impenetrability as you approach. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /?>
By the time you get to Grenoble, you're in the belly of the beast; there's no direction you can go without climbing. Depending on their reasons for being here, such a prospect has varying impacts on riders at the Tour de France:
If you want to win the Tour de France, a certain part of you has to enjoy coming to the mountains. This is the playground of champions. On the slopes of climbs so long and steep they exceed the Tour's ranking system, tactics eventually go out the window and the race boils down to its purest elements: two riders pedaling at their physical limits against gravity, thinning air and each other to see who can reach the finish line first.
Tour contenders love the mountains because they clear away all the clutter that gets in the way during flat stages. As a group, the contenders separate themselves from the herd on the lower slopes. As they climb, the group gets even smaller as borderline contenders fall behind, leaving only the strongest four or five to fight for the top honors.
The mountains are the one place where the big men of the Tour de France can really lock horns. They can gain and lose time during individual and team time trials, but true champions want to win in head-to-head combat.
As a bike racer, there is nothing more satisfying than hearing the labored breathing of your opponent fade into silence as you ride away. If you're on the other end of that equation, there's nothing worse than riding at your absolute limit while watching your opponent's rear wheel move farther away. When Lance Armstrong and his chief rivals look out at the mountains, they see opportunity; the yellow jersey and the ghosts of cycling's legendary heroes are up in those clouds.
You don't have to love the mountains to ride in support of a Tour de France contender; you just have to be very good at climbing them. In many ways, riders supporting yellow jersey contenders have the hardest jobs when the race hits the big mountains.
Teammates work to keep the group of contenders together by keeping the pace high enough to discourage attacks. If the group is going slowly, riders are tempted to accelerate off the front and leave the group behind. Utilizing your team to set a pace faster than a solitary rider could sustain keeps the group contained and is a good use of your team's strength.
It's also exhausting if you're one of those teammates. Your job is to ascend mountain passes at the front of the lead group at a pace you can only sustain for 5-10 minutes. Then, after you can't maintain that speed any longer, you pull off and let the next teammate take his turn doing the same thing.
Meanwhile, you're paying the cost for your