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Altitude is the acid test at Tour de France

The Associated Press PARIS (AP) — With each crank of their pedals, riders on the Tour de France will climb ever-higher into the unknown.

For the first time in its 116-year history, the race that starts Saturday features three stages that finish on mountain climbs to above 2,000 meters. The unprecedented assault on altitude will likely prove decisive in deciding the Tour winner .

The thinning mountain air, with scarcer oxygen, will trigger a cascade of physiological reactions, right down to the cellular level, in the riders’ aching bodies and sap their strength as they fight to not get left behind amid the peaks of the Pyrenees and Alps.

Their lungs will heave, breathing harder and quicker to try to compensate for the falling air pressure. Their hearts will pump faster, to increase flows of oxygen-carrying red blood cells to the lungs so they can pick up more of their precious cargo and rush it urgently to straining muscles.

The bowls of pasta the riders wolfed down and the energy gels they’ll carry with them on the road will be burned through more quickly as their bodies work ever harder to break down the carbohydrates and sugars, to power them up steep inclines on barren slopes too high and inhospitable for trees to grow.

And in the process of churning out energy with less oxygen, their cells will spit out greater amounts of lactic acid, stinging and burning their muscles and interfering with their ability to keep those pedals turning.

“When you ride over 2,000 meters, you definitely feel the difference, compared to, say, 1,000 or lower,” 2018 Tour champion Geraint Thomas told The Associated Press as he trained last month for his title defense.

“You just can’t do the same powers that you do at sea level,” he said. “It is just like a thinner sort of air, really, up there. You can just tell, like, when you’re breathing, you’re just not getting quite as much oxygen in the lungs as you normally would.”

By going extra-high at this Tour, organizers hope to avoid a formulaic race and keep the identity of the eventual winner uncertain for as long as possible, perhaps all the way to the end of the Alps, on the last day before the Tour rolls into Paris on July 28.Speech

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