We have finally made it to the first of two stages that have loomed large over this whole race, and will play a huge role in determining who is the 2011 Tour de France champion. Tour de France 4 Stages in, 4 Contenders.

Tour de France 4 Stages
The Profile of Stage 18. Savage.

Today is officially a filthy stage on the bike. 200km, three hors categorie climbs, approximately 470om vertical gain through the stage, including a single climb from 335m above sea level to 2744m! Holy smokes.

The way I see things, the Schlecks and Contador both need to take about two minutes out of Cadel by the time they hit the time trial on Saturday.

Cadel and Alberto are about the same over a TT (Alberto probably a little better) and Cadel has 1’57″³ start on him. Cadel is markedly better than Frank in a TT, and has 4″³ start on him; and Cadel is quite a bit better than Andy in the TT, with a 1’18″³ buffer at the moment.

If they all took 2min, we would see Cadel needing 3″³ over Contador, 42″³ over Andy, and 1’56″³ over Frank. All just at the edge of possible I reckon!

Sammy Sanchez is a bit of a wild card, being a little better than Andy at the TT. Maybe. And having been granted leave to skip off the front twice already this Tour, methinks he’ll be shut down henceforth.

Contador would not be too displeased with the state of things if Cadel wasn’t in front of him — he is likely good enough over a TT to cover both Schlecks as things currently stand. If he takes time out of them, then they are toast.

So I reckon Cadel needs to not lose more than 2min to anyone.

Contador needs to find 2min on Cadel, and not lose anything on the Schlecks.

The Schlecks need 2min on Cadel and 30-60s on Contador.

And Sanchez needs to make up time on everyone!

Who knows what way it’s going to pan out? I am champing at the bit to see it all go down tonight!