The yellow jersey should take on a significantly more sporting hue on Sunday when the Tour de France peloton tackles the first of three stages in the feared Pyrenees mountains. Denmark's Michael Rasmussen has worn the race's fabled yellow jersey since his stage victory at Tignes in the French Alps last Sunday, but in recent days the Rabobank climber has been subject of doping suspicions.
Following three days in the Alps, the race's 14th stage will herald the second segment of climbing in this year's race, and Sunday's 197km race from Mazamet to Plateau de Beille features the second summit finish. Beille will make its third appearance on the Tour, the last time being in 2002 when Lance Armstrong claimed his 14th stage win on the race, having also won the previous day at La Mongie.
But with the race still wide open for a handful of contenders, no one rider will dominate the Pyrenees as Armstrong did on the way to his fourth triumph.
Ahead of Saturday's 54 km time trial here all the yellow jersey favourites, excluding Rasmussen, were bunched within a minute of each other in the general classification.
It is on the climb to Beille that the Astana team of Klöden and Alexandre Vinokourov will hope to launch their bid to take control of the race. Vinokourov's knee injuries from a crash on stage five now appear a distant memory, but with the field so closely matched in the mountains the Kazakh will have to think tactics if they want to outfox their rivals.
Astana are keeping their rivals guessing over whether Vinokourov or Germany's Andreas Klöden is the real team leader, but some in the peloton already expect 'Vino' to go on the attack.
"He's a fighter, a great man who never quits," said Germany's Jens Voigt, who was beaten into second by Vinokourov in the 2005 Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic. "Don't write him off, he'll definitely try to win a stage."
Astana team coach Mario Kummer affirmed after Thursday's stage, when Vino's team almost rode France's Christophe Moreau out of the race: "Our captain is and will be Vino, but we will let Andreas have a free role. And hopefully he'll have the possibility to ride for the yellow jersey. But the captain to decide is Vino."
With the Pyrenees bordering northern Spain, there should be a strong Spanish and Basque contingent among the thousands of roadside fans.
Despite Iban Mayo's recent switch to Saunier Duval from the Basque Euskaltel team, the Spaniard - who sat second overall ahead of the time trial - will be one to watch.
French teammate Christophe Rinero said, "Our number one aim is a stage win, and hopefully Mayo will be the man for that in the Pyrenees. But if he manages to stay in contention after the first time trial then we will be working to make sure he gets a top finish in the general classification."
With three mountain stages spread over four days, and coming after the effort of Saturday's time trial, the yellow jersey rivals could wait until the final, 15.9km climb to Beille - at a punishing average gradient of 7.9 percent - before launching their attacks.
The first climb on Sunday's stage is a comparatively easy nine kilometre trek over the Cote de Saint-Sarraille. A 16.8km climb over the Port de Pailhères, at an average gradient of 7.2, ensues before the yellow jersey battle continues on the steep, unforgiving slopes of Beille.
© AFP 2007