Riders ready for mountains as Tour’s overall race heats up

The only way is up: Carlos Sastre is one of several riders ready to make moves on today's stage.

The only way is up: Carlos Sastre is one of several riders ready to make moves on today's stage. (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

The Tour de France’s general classification will heat up today, with the race reaching the Pyrénées for its first mountain top finish of 2009 in Andorre Arcalis. Today’s stage is the first of three in the Pyrénées, with the following two stages incorporating Tourmalet and Aspin, but today will be the only mountain-top finish.

Defending champion Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam) is hoping to start drawing back time on Astana’s men, as he sits 2:44 minutes down. “We’ve done many climbs in the Pyrénées during the Tour de France, including one that I won,” said Sastre, referring to his stage victory in the 2003 Tour. “I also know Arcalis. I was second there once in a time trial. I think I’ve raced it four or five times. It’s hard, but not as steep as some other climbs.”

Former race winner Alberto Contador believes the time he and Astana teammate Lance Armstrong have on the other general classification contenders will see attacks begin from early in the stage. "[It will be a] very interesting day because there are going to be a great quantity of riders that have to risk from early in the stage because they have lost so much time," said Contador.

Bjarne Riis, the head of Saxo Bank, believes his mean have conserved enough energy over the opening week to be active on today’s stage. Saxo Bank rider Fabian Cancellara holds the race’s yellow jersey by just fractions of a second from seven time Tour winner Armstrong.

"I'm looking forward to see who really has something to show tomorrow, when we reach the mountains,” he said. “We have not spent undue energy today, and we're looking forward to tomorrow's stage."

Silence-Lotto’s team manager Hendrik Redant believes normally rival teams will seek an alliance today in order to topple Astana. Redant’s squad includes Australian overall contender Cadel Evans, but the Belgian team has a comparatively weak roster to Astana and could look to align with Saxo Bank or Cervélo TestTeam.

"I think Astana will control the race for most of the day so the only chances could come in the final seven or eight kilometres (to Arcalis)," he told SMH.com.au. "That's when you could see some collaboration between some guys who have got the same goal, and that could leave Astana isolated.

"No one, I think, is going to collaborate with Astana,” he added. "The riders have to watch what is happening during the race for themselves and then decide whether to collaborate or not."

For most of today’s 224 kilometres the roads will be uphill - save for the descent of the first of the two climbs, the Port d'Oliana, a 7.7km-mountain averaging 7.1 percent gradient. Afterwards, it will be a long drag up to the tiny Principality of Andorra and its ski station, the first of three mountain top finishes of this year's Tour.

The last time the Tour came to Arcalis, in 1997, Jan Ullrich broke away solo on the final stretch to the summit (10.6km at 7.1 percent) and lay the foundations for his later overall win.

Cervélo sport director Jean-Paul Van Poppel seemed excited heading into today’s stage. Van Poppel is confidence that Sastre will be ready to make a move if required.

“Everyone thinks the Tour is over,” said Van Poppel. “The real racing begins now and we will start to take some time back. The Tour is just starting.

“If Carlos has the legs, he will make a move. He knows what he has to do,” Van Poppel said.

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