(Photos: Yuzuru Sunada)
Cadel Evans has bucked a trend of recent years to survive the first 10 stages of the Tour de France without mishap. But on Thursday a whole new challenge awaits Australia's two-time runner-up as he continues what has so far been a convincing bid for that elusive yellow jersey.
"For us, the real Tour starts tomorrow," Evans said after Wednesday's 11th stage here where British sprinter Mark Cavendish took his third win to take his career tally to 18.
Evans couldn't be far wrong, but if the form and fortune that have accompanied him throughout arguably the most hectic first nine stages of the race in recent memory, the 34-year-old will be feeling buoyed.
Sitting in third place overall at 2min 26sec behind French race leader Thomas Voeckler, Evans is the highest placed overall contender.
Luxembourg's Frank Schleck is fourth at 2:29 while younger brother Andy is fifth at 2:37.
The man they all want to beat, reigning champion Alberto Contador, is 16th at 4:07.
The 12th stage is the first of three in a row in the Pyrenees, and also features the first mountain top finish at Luz Ardiden.
"The Pyrenees are hard," said Andy Schleck. "Luz-Ardiden is the harder of the Pyreenean stages, even if there is also another big one at Plateau de Beille (Saturday)."
The Luxemburger, who was only 39sec off the pace in second last year as Evans notched up his second consecutive finish beyond 20th overall, says he can't wait to get climbing.
"I'm happy that these nervous kinds of stages are over and that we can now hit the mountains," said Schleck. "It's a sense of relief to change to the small (chain) ring. We're in our terrain now."
Beginning in Cugneaux several kilometers south of Toulouse stage 12 features three climbs in total. La Hourquette d'Ancizan, making its race debut, is a 9.9km ascent with an average gradient of 7.5 percent.
The peloton will climb far higher, to an altitude of 2115 meters, when they tackle the 17.1km ascent of the Col du Tourmalet at an average of 7.3 percent. A 20km descent ensues before the climbers and yellow jersey challengers still in contention tackle the 13.3 ascent to Luz Ardiden at an average of 7.4.
After 10 stages of surviving the numerous crashes which have bloodied the peloton, sent victory challengers home and left organizers facing scrutiny from cycling's authorities, the yellow jersey battle will finally take centre stage.
Adding spice will be the uncertainty surrounding Contador's painful knee. The Spanish climber compounded an existing knock Sunday when he crashed, for the fourth time in eight days, on the crash-marred ninth stage to Saint-Flour.
Despite claims that it is improving, it could play into the hands of rival teams keen to drop Contador even further out of contention.
One man keen on not seeing that happen is Australian Richie Porte. On his race debut, the Tasmanian all-rounder has been given the job of pacing Contador for as long as possible on the penultimate climb.
"My job is to keep Alberto safe on the penultimate climb and despite knowing how much pain I'll be in, I'm looking forward to getting the job done," said Porte.
"Chris (Sorensen), Daniel (Navarro) and Jesus (Hernandez) are all ready to take on the climb to Luz Ardiden and I know they can't wait to enter their kind of terrain."
Whatever happens with Contador, Evans, on his seventh Tour campaign, knows that Thursday could spring a few surprises.
"The first stage in the mountains of any Grand Tour is always a bit of something where someone has a bad day and someone has an extraordinarily good day," he added.
"It is always some degree of an indicator. I just make my own race and see how the others go and hopefully I'll be competitive - or better."