Climbers set to start their strut
Cancellara keeps yellow jersey as mountain stages approach
GUEUGNON, France — Levi Leipheimer, one of Lance Armstrong’s teammates and a key lieutenant in mountain stages, was redfaced and drained Friday afternoon as he ditched his bike at the end of another blistering day designed for the sprinters of the Tour de France.
Finally, Leipheimer and the rest of Team RadioShack could look forward to the terrain they were hired to dominate: the mountains.
Today the peloton will test its climbing legs as riders assault the Jura Mountains. The Alps, then, will be only a day away.
“I predict we’ll have the best team in the mountains,” Leipheimer said. “And I think we’ll show that.”
Armstrong still was in 18th place after Friday’s stage, another win for British sprinting sensation Mark Cavendish.
Armstrong will rely heavily on Leipheimer,
Andreas Klöden and other teammates to protect him, maintain an aggressive pace and allow him to draft them, conserving energy. From time to time, one of the riders will attack, forcing riders from other teams to give chase.
Jani Brajkovic, the youngest member of RadioShack, even may have a prominent role this weekend. A month ago, he earned a spot on the team after he stayed even with defending Tour champion Alberto Contador on the climbs of the Dauphine, a race based in the Alps.
Today’s 102.8-mile jaunt from Tournus to Station des Rousses may not be steep enough to entice the best to attack. The stage has a false summit finish to the French-Swiss resort of Les Rousses. It’s a Category 2 climb that will last for longer than 8 miles. But the final 2.5 miles feature a flat straightaway into the resort, which could allow riders a chance to erase any time gaps built on the climb.
The other top riders are anticipating that RadioShack will take the early offensive to help make up the two-plus minutes Armstrong lost when he had a flat tire Tuesday on the cobblestones near Belgium.
On paper, no other team is as strong as RadioShack. Saxo Bank had been rated at RadioShack’s level until it lost Frank Schleck, a past Tour mountain stage winner, to a broken collarbone earlier this week.
Australia’s Cadel Evans, a two-time Tour runner-up, is expecting RadioShack to do something.
“Even in these early days people will be looking for opportunities,” said Evans, who was in third place overall and the best-placed among likely yellow jersey contenders.
“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.”
Fabian Cancellara will be wearing yellow again today. But he is a time-trial specialist and in the Tour to work for Andy Schleck, so he will probably lose the jersey soon.
Andy Schleck, who is in sixth place, also could emerge in yellow after the weekend is finished.
“There are two riders I need to pay close attention to, and that’s Armstrong and Contador,” Schleck said. “They are the strongest. Armstrong’s in good form, better than people might think.”
All the talk of attacks aside, many riders may conserve their efforts for Sunday, the beginning of the first route in the Alps with a category one (the second-most difficult) climb and summit finish in Morzine-Avoriaz.
Armstrong said Friday he was anticipating more action in Morzine, which will be the final stage before the Tour’s first rest day. “There will be more animation, more attacks,” he said.
Or maybe Armstrong just didn’t want to tip his strategic hand, knowing how strong of a team he’s assembled for the climbs.
Britain’s Mark Cavendish won his 2nd straight stage.
Stage 6 winner Mark Cavendish, fifth from left, sprints toward his second straight stage victory on Friday in Gueugnon, France.