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Tour de France mountain men get chance to shine

Updated: July 14, 2011, 03:13

Mark Cavendish of Britain drinks as he rides in the pack during the 10th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 158 kilometers (98.2 miles) starting in Aurillac and finishing in Carmaux, south central France, Tuesday July 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

CUGNAUX, France (AP) Sprinters, breakaway artists and a Frechman dominated the Tour de France's rainy, chaotic first half.

Now it's the mountain men's chance to thrive.

The 177 riders remaining in a peloton whittled down by crashes and injuries arrived Thursday in the Pyrenees mountains, for the start of a punishing three-day odyssey that forces their weary legs to carry them up and over four mountain passes so tough they are known as HC - or "Hors Categorie'' - climbs, meaning it is even harder than a category 1 climb and is therefore beyond classification.

Alberto Contador, the defending champion who made more headlines in the first half for a series of slips, spills and bad luck that left him a 4 minute, 7 seconds behind leader Thomas Voeckler, wants to show his rivals he's still the world's best climber, but it depends whether his troublesome right knee lets him.

The three-time champion has been bugged by swelling in his right knee since he crashed on last week's fifth stage, and he banged the knee again falling of his bike in the ninth stage Sunday.

With two mammoth climbs up the Col du Tourmalet and an uphill finish to Luz-Ardiden in the 12th stage Thursday, the Spaniard was quietly confident his body won't let him down. It had better not, otherwise Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans won't hesitate to try to knock him out of contention.

Cruel, but that's the Tour. After all, Contador didn't wait around when Schleck's chain came off last year.

"At Luz Ardiden, I think that everyone will be waiting. Someone has to open the race, especially the Schleck brothers but until we see how the stage develops we cannot really say anything. Also the weather will have a great influence,'' Contador said after the 11th stage Wednesday.

Younger brother Andy Schleck, a two-time Tour runner-up behind Contador, battled the Spaniard to a stalemate in the mountains last year.

"It's a sense of relief to change to the small ring,'' Andy Schleck said. "We're in our terrain now.''

British sprinter Mark Cavendish won the 11th stage with a blistering late attack for his third Tour stage win of the race, and Frenchman Thomas Voeckler kept the race leader's yellow jersey for another day.

Evans is the best placed of the main Tour contenders and the Australian led Schleck by 11 seconds overall, and Contador by 1:41. Schleck, who lost last year's Tour to Contador by 39 seconds, leads him by 1:30.

But after Thursday's stage, those times could well be very different.

Contador's priority Wednesday was more about staying on his saddle and letting the rain massage his sore knee on a 104.1-mile, flat and rainy route from Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur.

"The knee did not bother me at any time today,'' Contador said. "The rain was actually soothing my knee today as it almost felt like ice.''

Contador, however, knows there is nothing soothing about the Pyrenees.

on Thursday, the riders faced a 131.1-mile trek from Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden with three significant climbs that sprinters dread and climbers like Contador love. Friday's 13th stage features an HC trek up Col d'Aubisque, followed by a hair-raising 24.8-mile descent to the line. Saturday's led is harder than the previous two - an intense day featuring two nasty category 1 ascents up Col de la Core and Col d'Agnes, and a finish with a long HC climb up to Plateau de Beille.


AP Sports Writers Jerome Pugmire and Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.


Greg Keller can be reached at http://twitter.com/Greg-Keller

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