PAU, France (AP) — Bradley Wiggins considers the two punishing days that await in the Pyrenees, climbs that have broken many riders. He insists these stages are nothing special.
"It goes uphill like all the others, doesn't it?" he said.
The nonchalance of the Tour de France leader will indeed be tested.
On Wednesday, there's the "Circle of Death," as the four brutal climbs are known, none more daunting than the 7,000-foot Tourmalet. On Thursday, the last summit finishes atop the 5,300-foot Peyragudes.
Wiggins is talking a big game in his bid to become Britain's first Tour de France champion. He says Wednesday's stage "isn't any more difficult than any other stage we've done up to this stage, really."
Wiggins has reason to be confident. His Team Sky is stacked with such strong climbers as Norwegian champion Edvald Boasson Hagen, Australians Richie Porte and Michael Rogers, and above all Kenyan-born Briton Christopher Froome. Still, questions remain.
Will "King of the Alps" Pierre Rolland also dominate the Pyrenees? Or will the man from Down Under, defending champion Cadel Evans, go over the top in a last-ditch move to save his Tour de France dream?
Rolland has been hailed in France following a victory at l'Alpe d'Huez in 2011 and a win at the La Toussuire ski resort last week. But he must persevere in the Pyrenees if he wants to catch Sweden's Frederik Kessiakoff in the race for the polka-dot climbers jersey that designates the Tour's King of the Mountains.
Overall, Wiggins leads Froome by 2:05 and Vincenzo Nibali of Italy by 2:23. Evans remains fourth, and the Aussie needs to attack to begin cutting into his 3:19 deficit in the chase for the yellow jersey.
The 154 other riders left in the 99th Tour will have plenty of time to ponder the 16th and 17th stages — the Pyrenees are visible on the horizon from Pau, the medieval city where the race pauses for its last rest day.
Team Sky will spend its day off there recuperating from more than two weeks of nearly nonstop racing.
"A little bit of a lie-in, a couple miles out on the bike to keep the momentum going, a bite to eat, massage, media, a meal, sleep," team manager Dave Brailsford said. "That's pretty much it, really."
R & R will be the order of the day for other teams as well in a Tour that has become of a war of attrition. Crashes and illnesses have already caused more than 20 percent of the original 198 starters in Liege, Belgium, to quit,
"We try not to get carried away with emotion. It's all about performance and we're very businesslike at this stage," Wiggins said during a news conference Tuesday.
The coming ride is through the mountains forming France's border with Spain. Among the Pyrenean peaks that will haunt riders are a chain of mountains so difficult they have been known as the "Circle of Death" since cyclists first scaled them in the Tour of 1910.
"Generally, the Pyrenees are a bit harder than the Alps," said U.S. cyclist Tejay van Garderen, who holds the white jersey for best rider 25 and under. "The roads are a bit rougher. They're just a bit more taxing."
The four legendary passes the riders will climb Wednesday are the Peyresourde, Aubisque, Aspin and Tourmalet, the highest point on this year's Tour. The pack on Thursday must ascend the Col de Mente and Port de Bales before scaling Peyragudes.
Pierrick Fedrigo of France won Monday's 15th stage by leading a two-man final breakaway. Wiggins kept the lead as he stayed with his rivals in the main pack far behind.
The 99-mile route from Samatan to Pau had a mostly flat layout, but teams with strong sprinters didn't try to chase down the breakaway riders as fatigue kicked in following a fast start. Wiggins finished 11 minutes, 50 seconds behind.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.
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