Now that the first week of racing is drawing to its end, the Tour de France peloton has arrived in the vicinity of the French Alps, a territory where the race will again unfold for the general classification contenders after the race spent three stages on fast bunch sprint finishes.
Attention is refocusing on the riders going for the overall victory as Saxo Bank's Fabian Cancellara is leading the race headed for the mountains. On Saturday, a medium-mountain stage will see the Tour's first uphill finish end on the Cat. 2 climb of Les Rousses. The next day, things may become serious for the first time with two Cat. 1 ascents on the menu to the ski station of Morzine-Avoriaz.
Defending champion Alberto Contador, together with his Astana teammate and super-domestique Alexandre Vinokourov, sits comfortably at 31 seconds behind Saxo Bank's true leader, Andy Schleck. The remainder of his rivals, including RadioShack's Lance Armstrong, have already lost time on the Spaniard, so they should be aiming to attack.
"Tomorrow's stage is not located in the high mountains yet, but it does take place in the delicate region of the Jura, with its bad road surfaces and in changing weather conditions," warned the Astana team manager Yvon Sanquer at the start of stage six in Montargis. He told Cyclingnews that while the run towards Les Rousses would probably see a breakaway aiming at the polka dot jersey of best climber, Contador would have to remain vigilant during the last climb. "We will have to watch out, as some riders that may have lost time on GC could use the day as an opportunity to come back a little."
Still, he said that it was very likely that Saxo Bank would defend Cancellara's yellow jersey. "I think Saxo Bank will want to keep the overall lead, and they are largely capable of pulling any break back in order to do so. Both Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara were impressive in the third stage, when they pulled Andy Schleck to the finish. So even if the race circumstances are complex tomorrow they will defend the jersey," he said.
AG2R-La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu agreed, even if he explained that the stage could be treacherous. "In the stage to Les Rousses, a breakaway including many riders could form, which might make it a bit more complicated for Saxo Bank to retain the lead," he said. "But I think they will do everything they can to keep Cancellara in the yellow, seeing that the stage arrives near Switzerland, too. But I doubt he will be able to defend the jersey in Avoriaz, which is a finish too difficult for him. It's harder than the climbs in the Tour de Suisse."
Another scenario could see the Danish squad purposely giving the lead to another team. Cancellara hinted at this possibility after Friday's finish in Gueugnon. "Maybe we will have someone else in yellow tomorrow? We have to see how the start goes and what the other teams' interests are in order to set up our proper objectives. For sure, something will change..."
While Astana manager Sanquer noted that the mountain stages in the Alps may be less important for the overall outcome in Paris than those that will be staged in the Pyrenees in the third week, Contador's team is ready to shield him from any attacks against their defending champion.
"We feel confident and serene, but we keep an eye on any possible threats," he said. "I think the next two stages will be less important than for instance the third week, where the climbs will be much more challenging. Still, the stage prior to the rest day [stage 8 to Morzine-Avoriaz] and the stage after it [stage 9 to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne] will provide more opportunity for our rivals to try and make up some time on GC."
It is also very likely that Contador himself will attack, challenging Schleck on the mountaintop finishes. "These stages will also serve as measurements of the state of the peloton and our more direct adversaries," said Sanquer. "We will start to discover where we stand in relation to them. There are about 10 riders that we have to watch out for, but as the days go by these might be subject to change depending on how the race unfolds."