A series of unpredictable alliances could conspire to disrupt the yellow jersey hopes of Lance Armstrong and his Astana team on the seventh stage of the Tour de France on Friday.
The first summit finish of the race is at the Andorran ski station of Arcalis but, although important in the grand scheme of things, it will take many more battles in the mountains before this year's race is decided.
Nevertheless, after just five days of unexpected drama Astana have taken significant steps towards eliminating some of their rivals.
Ahead of Thursday's sixth stage to Barcelona seven-time champion Armstrong was just 0.22secs behind race leader Fabian Cancellara, with 2007 winner Alberto Contador in third at just 19sec. Two other Astana riders, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer, sit in fourth and fifth respectively.
The Kazakh-backed team's strong position ahead of three consecutive mountain stages gives them "plenty of cards to play", according to Australia's Michael Rogers, who rides for Columbia.
But it also means the likes of Denis Menchov (3:59), defending champion Carlos Sastre (2:44) and two-time runner-up Cadel Evans (2:59) and Luxembourger Andy Schleck (1:41) will have to attack, at one time or another, in an attempt to close their deficits.
Evans' team manager at Silence, Hendrik Redant, believes Astana will "control the race" on Friday's climb to the Arcalis summit, a 10.1km ascent at a manageable gradient of 7.1 percent.
However the Belgian has not ruled out sporadic attacks, and some challengers joining forces in a bid to beat Astana.
"There will be opportunities for attacks, but there will also be plenty of others in the mountain stages ahead, some of which are more difficult," Redant told AFP. "I think Astana will control the race for most of the day so the only chances could come in the final seven or eight kilometres (to Arcalis).
"That's when you could see some collaboration between some guys who have got the same goal, and that could leave Astana isolated. No one, I think, is going to collaborate with Astana."
It is not an uncommon occurrence in cycling, but Redant said nothing will be planned.
"It's not like we get together before the race to decide who will help us," added Redant. "The riders have to watch what is happening during the race for themselves and then decide whether to collaborate or not."
Whatever happens on Friday could dictate the rhythm and frequency of attacks during the eighth and ninth stages this weekend in the Pyrenees.
Redant believes Evans, who dropped way down the overall standings after a disappointing team time trial, can remain in contention.
"Everyone says our team is not strong enough," said the Belgian. "But I believe our guys will give Cadel the backing he needs. For us, the Tour will only be over when it reaches Paris."
© AFP 2009
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