No pals act for tough Pyrenean stages, says Schleck
Tour de France contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador have been sharing conversations even as they battle to gain the edge over each other in the race for the yellow jersey. But Schleck knows he will soon have to drop all admiration for the Spaniard as the race heads into the Pyrenees mountains.
Sunday's 14th stage over the unclassified (hors categorie) climb of the Port de Pailheres towards the summit finish at Ax-3-Domaines is just the first of four big days in the Pyrenees which could decide who wins the race.
Schleck admits he is nervous, but believes Contador will be too as the cycling world awaits one of the race's tightest duels in years.
"I admire him (Contador) as a rider and I like him as a person, and when we talk it's not always about cycling," Schleck said after protecting his 31sec lead on Contador during the 13th stage when Contador's Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov won his first stage on the race since 2005.
"I'm a little bit nervous about the first stage in the Pyrenees, although that's normal. It's a hard climb to the Port de Pailheres and then after the downhill it finishes on the summit.
"I think Alberto will be (nervous) too. But I'm confident as well. I think it should be a hard-fought stage."
Schleck took the yellow jersey on stage nine, a day after winning on the first high mountain summit of the race at Morzine-Avoriaz, where he beat Contador by 10sec.
But after another four tough days of racing, the truth on Schleck's real form will soon be revealed.
Because he leads the race the Luxemburger's Saxo Bank team have been kept on their toes because they, like the sprinters' teams when there is a stage win at stake, are obliged to play their part in chasing down escapes.
On Friday's tough stage to Mende, Saxo Bank put in more work than they'd bargained for after failing to put one of their men into a breakaway that they then had to help chasing down.
With Vinokourov among the escapees on the 12th stage, Contador's Astana team were under no such obligation - a freedom which arguably gave him the edge when he attacked on the final climb and finished second to take those lost 10sec back from Schleck.
Although Contador suffered a possible setback on Saturday when one of his key mountain helpers, Jesus Hernandez, crashed 14km from the finish as the pace picked up, some of Schleck's team-mates were dropped in the final kilometres.
It is difficult to guage such incidents ahead of key stages. But after scoring a psychological blow on Friday, Contador is brimming with confidence.
"I hope to take advantage of these hard stages to take back time, and if it's possible, to move ahead of Schleck," Contador said Saturday.
"The biggest danger is to have a bad day. Even if you have a good day, a bad one can come, and in the Pyrenees, considering how difficult they are, the question is to not falter but take back time."
The Spaniard said he won't take the kind of attacking risks that could compromise his chances of making up time lost in the mountains during the penultimate stage time trial over 50km next Saturday.
"My situation is good," added Contador, who is usually stronger than Schleck in the race against the clock.
"If things aren't clear I will not try to attack, because my position in respect to Andy is good and I am not going to risk more than necessary.
"He needs to try more than me in the mountains."
Hushovd loses green again as 'Cav' makes up ground
Alessandro Petacchi is back in the green jersey
No matter how hard he tries, Norwegian Thor Hushovd just can't consolidate his grip on the Tour de France green jersey.
A day after moving back to the top of the race's points competition, the Cervelo rider lost it again to Italian Alessandro Petacchi and now has another possible challenger in Britain's Mark Cavendish.
Lampre sprinter Petacchi had worn the jersey into Friday's 12th stage, in which Hushovd joined a breakaway over tough terrain to snap up enough intermediate sprint points to take it back at Mende.
On Saturday, Norway's two-time winner lost it again, after Petacchi picked up 26 points for a third place finish behind stage winner Alexandre Vinokourov and Cavendish, whose second place handed him 30.
Hushovd's lack of top end speed told again at the finish line in Revel where his eighth place gave him 18 points. Petacchi now has a total of 187 points and a two-point lead on Hushovd.
Likely adding to Hushovd's frustration is the fact that Cavendish, who was virtually out of the green jersey race after a disastrous first week, is now a contender in third overall on 162.
Hushovd said: "I am just a little bit disappointed and confused that I am not sprinting as well. Two months ago I broke my collarbone and haven't done any sprint training, and I am paying for this now."
Asked whether he is prepared to attack on the flat sections of the mountain stages in the coming days, the Norwegian was coy.
"I think it will be difficult, because the intermediate sprints come in the flats early in the stage or after the big climbs. I am climbing well, but I think it will be difficult."
Although Cavendish is back in contention, HTC-Columbia's sprinter said he is likely to continue foregoing the intermediate sprints and keep on trying to place as high as he can at the finish where most sprint points are awarded.
"It's just important to minimise my losses now. Thor's always there, Petacchi's there.... we'll see what happens," said Cavendish.
"I'm not the same type of rider as Thor, it's not possible for me to go in the mountains solo like that I've got to rely on my sprints."
Like Cavendish, Petacchi is not known for his prowess in the mountains. But like Hushovd, he is prepared to fight all the way.
"I have a lot of respect for a rider like Thor," said the Italian.
"But the two of us want this jersey. I'm sure it will be a fight all the way to Paris."
Sastre hopeful ahead of Pyrenees stages
Former Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre admits the thought of racing hard in the Pyrenees over the coming days in not exactly getting him excited.
But Spain's 2008 winner of the world's biggest bike race said he is hopeful of teasing his stuttering climbing legs into production mode in a bid to relaunch his bid for a top finish.
"When we previewed the Pyrenees before the Tour, we knew it was going to be hard. I am trying to stay calm. I don't know what to expect," said Sastre, who lies 15th overall at 7min 34sec behind Luxembourg's race leader Andy Schleck.
"I felt good on the climb at Mende (on stage 12) and the team is riding well. Tomorrow (Sunday) is a true mountain stage, so that will tell us a lot.
"But I am taking it day-by-day. Anything is possible."
Sunday's 14th stage, the first of four in the Pyrenees, begins easily enough but at the 140km mark the difficult 15.5km climb to the Port de Pailheres begins.
It has an average gradient of 7.9 percent, and is the second 'hors categorie' (unclassified) climb of the race.
The descent leads to the foot of the short (7.8km) but tough climb to Ax-3-Domaines, the second summit finish of this year's Tour.
Sastre has fond memories of the Pyrenean ski station having won stage 13 on the race there in 2003, five years before his overall victory.
But like many of the favourites, he is not expecting fireworks following two particularly tough weeks of racing.
"I have good memories of Ax-3-Domaines from my victory there (in 2003)," he added. "But it's all about having good legs and good sensations at the right moment.
"This Tour has been hard, with a lot of heat and stress. Now we have the Pyrenees, and the climbers will have a chance to do something."
Aussie brotherhood off the menu in the Pyrenees
Australia's rise up the world rankings has led to calls in recent years for the creation of a Wallabies-type national cycling team.
Those hopes couldn't be further from reality going into the crucial Pyrenees mountain stages of this year's Tour de France, where Aussie brotherhood simply isn't on the race menu.
While former two-time runner-up Cadel Evans continues to battle through the pain of a fractured elbow, veteran Stuart O'Grady is doing his best to make sure the BMC team leader, among others, doesn't become a threat for his team leader at Saxo Bank, race leader Andy Schleck.
And then there's Mick Rogers, HTC-Colombia's biggest hope for a top ten finish - and now in virtual competition with Evans, over whom he has a lead of 21secs.
Evans will go into Sunday's 14th stage 8:08 behind Schleck, and praying his handicap won't leave him trailing on the first of four punishing days in the Pyrenees.
After Friday's 12th stage, which finished on the brutally steep 3.1km 'Jalabert' climb, the Aussie did not emit overly-confident signs.
"I'm better, but not back to the level of where I was at Morzine-Avoriaz (on stage eight)," said Evans. "Climbing out of the saddle, especially on the steep climb today, I couldn't pull on my left side."
Brett Lancaster meanwhile has been among the riders battling to keep Cervelo team leader Thor Hushovd's bid for the green jersey afloat amid challenges by Italian Alessandro Petacchi and former winner Robbie McEwen.
Cervelo started the race hoping for 2008 winner Carlos Sastre to also come good. And although the Spaniard is way off the pace in 15th at 7:34, Rogers and Evans will be watching closely to see if they can benefit from the attacks he is expected to launch in the coming days.
Lancaster hinted there could be a few surprises: "It was tough in the Alps, it's going to be absolutely brutal in the Pyrenees. There are a lot of tired people out there.
"And you never know what Carlos can do. He's a quiet guy, he's still floating in there. He could surprise everyone. We're still hoping to get him higher in the GC (general classification)."
Off the bike meanwhile Garmin-Transitions sports director Matt White is putting a brave face on the fact he has lost three key team members, including top sprinter Tyler Farrar and top five hopeful Christian Vande Velde.
Farrar's departure came a day after the American was cheated out of his best chance for a stage win after a controversial end to stage 11 which led to the expulsion of Mark Renshaw.
Renshaw is one of the most approachable riders in the peloton and as a result has many admirers among the media.
So imagine the shock when he was thrown off the race on Thursday for three attempts at headbutting Julian Dean as the Kiwi tried to deliver Farrar towards the finish line. Renshaw subsequently blocked Farrar's path along the inside of the barriers after Cavendish had broken free to claim the stage win.
Renshaw was reported still to be claiming his innocence on Friday morning, but by the end of the stage he had telephoned race chiefs to apologise.
White did not bite when asked to react to Renshaw's declarations of innocence.
"My reaction doesn't really matter," White told AFP. "It was the commissaire's decision to put him out of the race. Mark's entitled to his opinion, the commissaires's their's and me mine."
© AFP 2010