The Tour de France heads into the mountains after a crash-filed opening week of racing, and Lance Armstrong’s team is confident that the seven-time champion will start clawing some time back off his main rivals.
The 38-year-old Armstrong started the Tour strongly on the opening day in Rotterdam, but then dropped back down the pecking order over the next few days of fraught racing and begins Saturday’s seventh stage in 18th place.
Although stage 7 is nothing like as grueling as Tuesday’s punishing Alpine trek, the 165.5-kilometre along six low to mid-grade climbs in the Jura mountain range from Tournus to Station des Rousses offers Armstrong and defending champion Alberto Contador an early chance to gauge each other’s form in the climbs.
“I predict we have the best team for the mountains and we need to show that,” Armstrong’s RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer said after Friday’s sixth stage which was won by Britain’s Mark Cavendish in a sprint finish. “We have a lot of guys who can climb and we have to take advantage of that.”
Armstrong’s team manager, Johan Bruyneel the architect of the Texan’s seven straight Tour wins from 1999-2005 is optimistic that a few days up in the mountains will shake things up a bit. Sunday’s stage, for example, features two tough climbs and an uphill finish to the Morzine-Avoriaz ski station.
“Everyone has to show their legs,” Bruyneel said. “There’s no hiding any more.”
Riders will now be hoping for cooler weather after several days of exhausting heat frayed tempers.
At the end of Friday’s 227.5-kilometer route from Montargis to Gueugnon, there were even fisticuffs as one rider attacked another with his bike wheel once they had crossed the line.
Cavendish, meanwhile, sealed his second stage win of this year’s race, and the 12th of his career, matching the feats of Erik Zabel, Mario Cipollini and Robbie McEwen.
However, the 25-year-old Cavendish was quick to share the credit.
“I cross the line with my hands in the air, but it doesn’t make me necessarily the only guy who’s done it,” he said. “I’ve got guys riding for me on the front all day. It’s incredible to do, especially with the Alps coming up where some of our guys will have their own ambitions. It shows they are willing to sacrifice for the team.”
Such talk of camaraderie was not on Spanish rider Carlos Barredo’s mind when he attacked Rui Costa of Portugal, charging toward Costa and attempting to strike him over the head with the wheel.
As Costa, who rides for Caisse d’Epargne, protected himself, Barredo tried punching him in the face several times before both fell to the ground screaming at each other.
Perhaps the heat had got to them, a factor which is going to be even more crucial in the mountains.
“It’s certainly a factor if you don’t do the right things, if you let your habits slide, the things you’re supposed to do,” Armstrong said. “Drinking, hydration, food, other types of cooling. Big factor, huge factor. Everybody knows heat is the biggest factor in performance.”
Cavendish managed to keep cool and completed Friday’s stage in 5 hours, 37 minutes, 42 seconds to edge Tyler Farrar of the U.S. into second place, and Alessandro Petacchi of Italy into third as they raced to the line.
The likely Tour title contenders crossed in the main pack following behind, with finishing positions irrelevant as they were all credited with the same time.
Cancellara retained the yellow jersey, two-time Tour runner-up Cadel Evans of Australia held onto third place, 39 seconds back, and last year’s runner-up, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, stays sixth, 1-09 back. Contador is ninth, 1-40 back, and Armstrong is 2-30 back.
The hazardous first week has left many riders feeling overly cautious, as they tried to avoid a crash and worse an injury that is serious enough to rule you out of the race.
The most high-profile victim has been Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, the Tour of Switzerland winner who pulled out on Tuesday because of a broken left collarbone sustained in a fall, the day after over half of the pack crashed in the rain.
“For now I see that everyone is very attentive, more than any year,” said the two-time Tour winner Contador.