All eyes on Armstrong as Tour rides into Alps
Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck will be among the Tour de France contenders keeping their eyes glued to Lance Armstrong and his RadioShack team Saturday as the seventh stage takes the race into the Alps.
Ahead of the end of the sixth stage Friday Armstrong's deficit to Australia's Evans, the best placed contender in third place overall at 39secs, was 1min 51sec.
The first of three days in the Alps Saturday is a 165.5km ride from Tournus in southern Burgundy to the Alpine ski station of Les Rousses.
Despite the fact an already beat-up peloton will tackle five medium-sized climbs before the 14km ascent to Rousses, there have been hints the race's big guns will keep their powder dry for Sunday's more difficult stage to Morzine-Avoriaz.
In comparison, stage seven is more of an appetiser - the final climb's average gradient is just five percent and it has been suggested that Swiss race leader Fabian Cancellara, who is not a climbing specialist, will emerge with the yellow jersey still on his back.
Yet both Geraint Thomas, Team Sky's Welsh debutant, and Evans, a former two-time runner-up, have a great chance of taking the race lead as both are only 23 and 39sec behind Cancellara respectively.
Nevertheless, Evans will be keeping a close eye on attacks from Armstrong, who has time to make up on all his yellow jersey rivals after losing time on the tough stage three over the cobbles.
"Even in these early days people will be looking for opportunities, and there's a couple of guys on the back foot," said Evans. "I know how it is in that position, you've got to look for opportunities everywhere."
Evans, Schleck and Contador were all big winners on stage three's ride over the cobbles.
Luxembourger Schleck is now sixth overall 30sec behind Evans but 1:11 ahead of Armstrong while Contador is ninth at 1:01 behind Evans and 50sec ahead of Armstrong.
Schleck has come into the Tour as the main challenger to two-time winner Contador after he finished runner-up to the Spanish all-rounder in 2009, albeit over four minutes adrift.
And the Saxo Bank climbing specialist seemed to suggest he will be paying special attention to Armstrong.
"There's two riders I need to pay close attention to, and that's Armstrong and Contador. They are the strongest. Armstrong's in good form, better than people might think," he said.
Thomas, the Welsh former track cyclist, has brought an air of excitement to the Tour after a superb first week of racing.
In doing so he has upstaged team leader Bradley Wiggins, although in reality the situation suits the Londoner who is fully focused on staking his own yellow jersey claim after a fourth place finish in 2009.
Thomas therefore has a great chance of pulling on the yellow jersey himself. That would be considered a huge achievement for his team on their debut, and is a prospect he had never dreamed of.
"It's quite strange to be in this position, but it's been a nice first week. It's not bad really, is it?" he said Friday.
"Obviously if the opportunity arose then I'd definitely try and grab it."
Evans ready for Alps, but not yellow jersey
Cadel Evans is keeping all thoughts of the Tour de France yellow jersey as far as possible from his mind.
But ahead of three potentially crucial days in the Alps, Australia's best contender for the world's biggest bike race must accept that he might just have to pull on the race's fabled tunic.
After his superb performance in stage three when a bumpy ride over seven gruelling cobblestone sectors left Lance Armstrong the biggest loser of the day, Evans is now only 39secs behind Swiss Olympic time trial champion Fabian Cancellara.
Evans has famously finished runner-up twice, in 2007 and 2008. In 2008 he took the yellow jersey after the 10th stage to Hautacam in the Pyrenees and wore it for four days before losing it to Frank Schleck, who handed it over to eventual winner, CSC teammate Carlos Sastre.
The word from the peloton is that Saturday and Sunday's stages, which finish on the summits of Rousses and Morzine-Avoriaz respectively, will not host a real battle between the yellow jersey contenders.
After a tough week of racing that has left the peloton perhaps more tired than they'd reckoned, Evans admits he would love to emerge from those stages still in contention.
"Hopefully (I'd like to be) ahead of where I am on classification would be the optimal," the Australian said before the start of Thursday's fifth stage. "But the stages we've had so far are not necessarily typical of the Tour, they're an indication of who's riding well but not who's (going to be) the best in the mountains.
"We'll see what happens in the mountains on Saturday, and particularly Sunday there'll be a real shuffle of the GC (general classification) contenders."
But asked about possibly picking up the yellow jersey on the way, he said: "We'll see. Long way to go yet."
Armstrong currently sits in 18th overall 2:30 behind Cancellara and 50sec behind Evans, a situation which, on paper, should force the American into trying to close his deficit.
"He'll certainly move up on GC, that's for sure. I'm interested to see how he and Alberto are climbing," added Evans, who is hoping Armstrong's team make some attacking moves.
"I wouldn't mind if they did. It's him that's got to make up time because I'm happy to stay where I am for a while."
Others have warned that Armstrong may try to destabilise Evans, Contador and last year's runner-up, Andy Schleck, by sending one or several of his capable teammates on the attack.
RadioShack have German Andreas Klöden, a former Tour runner-up, Yaroslav Popovych and young Slovenian climber Janez Brajkovic, who matched Contador on the climbs at last month's Dauphine Criterium stage race.
"Armstrong certainly will be wanting to make up some time, especially after stage three where he was expected to take time off Contador, but we can't forget who he has in his team," AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu told AFP.
"Klöden is strong in the mountains, so is Popovych and Brajkovic won the Dauphine last month."
Evans knows from experience his rivals will be looking to chip away at their respective deficits, but also that the real hard work won't come until the Pyrenees.
"Even in these early days people will be looking for opportunities, and there's a couple of guys on the back foot - I know how it is in that position, you've got to look for opportunities everywhere," he added.
"It depends on how aggressive we race the stage to Morzine (Sunday). If it's raced really hard from the start of the mountains it could make a real shake-up, (it will) start to shape a bit of the GC as it might be in Paris.
"But it's not like the four stages in the Pyrenees. Along with the time trial (on stage 19), I think the race is going to be won there."
Schleck plays down Evans' yellow jersey threat
Luxembourg's Andy Schleck has played down the climbing threat of Australia's Cadel Evans a day before the Tour de France heads into the Alps.
Schleck is considered the main challenger to two-time winner Alberto Contador after he finished runner-up to the Spanish all-rounder in 2009, albeit over four minutes adrift.
Ahead of three days in the Alps from Saturday to Tuesday - Monday is a rest day - the Saxo Bank climbing specialist is sixth overall at 30sec behind Evans, who has a 39sec deficit to race leader Fabian Cancellara.
Contador is ninth overall at 1:40 behind Cancellara and 1:01 behind Evans, while seven-time champion Lance Armstrong is further off the pace at 2:30 behind Cancellara.
Schleck believes Armstrong will be one of the key players in the Alps, were Sunday's stage is expected to witness the first big yellow jersey battle.
But the 24-year-old Luxembourger believes he won't have to worry about Evans, the reigning world champion who has twice finished runner-up on the Tour.
"Not to discredit him, but I don't see Evans sticking with the leaders (on the climbs)," Schleck said at the end of Thursday's fifth stage.
Schleck said he regarded Evans as "a bit of an outsider", but added: "Maybe I will be proved wrong."
He added: "I think Lance will attack (in the Alps). And if the opportunity comes up, RadioShack (Armstrong's team) will take it."
Fans of Evans, however, might beg to differ.
Evans overcame the handicap of having weak team at his disposal to finish runner-up in both 2007 and 2008, although the Australian had a disastrous campaign in 2009 which he finished in 30th place.
But since then Evans has been virtually reborn. He finished third overall at the Tour of Spain in 2009, and weeks later carried that form to the world championships where he made history by winning the men's road race title. He has been on superb form this season, winning the Fleche Wallonne semi-classic ahead of Contador, and is racing the Tour after a solid fifth place finish at the Giro d'Italia.
Now at the BMC team where he will be supported by American George Hincapie, among others, Evans' 2010 Tour campaign looks rock solid. But he too will be watching out for his rivals in the coming days.
The race will take a decisive turn in a third week which features four tough stages in the Pyrenees, where the climb to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet on stage 17 could virtually decide the yellow jersey.
Schleck believes that is when other "outsiders", like Italy's Giro d'Italia champion Ivan Basso or Spain's 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, will come into their own: "They will be there in the first week, and they'll be strong."
© AFP 2010