PAU, France - Tour de France leader Bradley Wiggins has dismissed the two upcoming Pyrenees mountain stages as nothing special.
But the "Circle of Death," as Wednesday's linkage of four brutal climbs is known, plus the race's last summit finish atop the 5,300-foot Peyraguedes on Thursday will test the nonchalance Wiggins showed when asked if he fears riding up such famed mountains as the nearly 7,000-foot Tourmalet in the next two days.
"It goes uphill like all the others doesn't it?" Wiggins said Tuesday at a news conference, adding that Wednesday's stage "isn't any more difficult than any other stage we've done up to this stage, really."
Wiggins sought to play down the importance of the coming rough ride through the mountains forming France's border with Spain.
"It's just another day on the Tour really," he said. "We try not to get carried away with emotion, it's all about performance and we're very businesslike at this stage."
Wiggins' Team Sky is stacked with strong climbers like Norwegian champion Edvald Boasson Hagen, Australian pair Richie Porte and Michael Rogers, and above all Kenyan-born Christopher Froome of Britain to give him reason to be confident, but other questions remain.
Will the "King of the Alps" Pierre Rolland dominate the Pyrenees, or will the man from Down Under, defending champ Cadel Evans, go over the top in a last-ditch move to save his Tour dream?
Rolland received his nickname in the French press after his win at the La Toussuire ski resort last week followed up victory in the l'Alpe d'Huez in 2011. He must continue his efforts in the Pyrenees if he wants to catch Swedish rider Frederik Kessiakoff in the battle for the polka-dot jersey that goes to the Tour's King of the Mountains.
Evans, meanwhile, must find a slope somewhere on the four category-1 and three beyond-category climbs which riders tackle on Wednesday and Thursday that is steep enough to launch an attack on Wiggins to begin eating into his 3:19 deficit to the Briton in the yellow jersey hunt.
Evans, Rolland and the 154 other riders left in the 99th Tour will have plenty of time to ponder the upcoming one-two punch that is the 16th and 17th stages of the Tour — as the Pyrenees mountains are visible on the horizon from Pau, the medieval city where the race pauses for its last rest day.
Team Sky, the squad aiming to make Wiggins Britain's first Tour champion, spent its day off in Pau on Tuesday recuperating from more than two weeks of nearly non-stop racing, the team's manager said.
"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. That's pretty much it really," Dave Brailsford said.
Rest and recuperation will be the order of the day for other teams as well, in a Tour that has become somewhat of a war of attrition. Crashes and illnesses have already caused more than 20 per cent of the original 198 starters in Liege, Belgium, to abandon the competition.
Among the Pyrenean peaks that will haunt riders' dreams on their day off are a chain of mountains so difficult they have been known as the "Circle of Death" since they first became part of the Tour course in 1910.
"Generally, the Pyrenees are a bit harder than the Alps," said American rider Tejay van Garderen, currently holding the white jersey for best cyclist 25 and under. "The roads are a bit rougher, they're just a bit more taxing."
The four legendary Pyrenean passes riders will climb Wednesday include Peyresourde, Aubisque, Aspin and Tourmalet, the highest point on this year's Tour.
The climbing doesn't let up on Thursday, when riders face the category-1 Col de Mente and the beyond-category Port de Bales, before scaling Peyragudes for the final summit finish of this year's Tour.
Pierrick Fedrigo of France won Monday's 15th stage by leading a two-man final breakaway, and Bradley Wiggins kept the overall 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.
Fedrigo, of the FDJ-BigMat team, earned his fourth Tour stage victory by leaving a group of six riders with about 4 miles left, with only Garmin-Sharp cyclist Christian Vande Velde of the United States able to stay close.
The 32-year-old Wiggins, the Team Sky leader, finished 11 minutes, 50 seconds behind Fedrigo in the main pack.
Overall, Wiggins leads second-place teammate Christopher Froome by 2:05. Vincenzo Nibali of Italy is third, 2:23 behind, and defending champion Evans remains fourth.