Tour riders await daunting climb in Pyrenees
Updated: July 15, 2011, 18:19
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LOURDES, France (AP) The most grueling stage yet of the Tour de France looms in the Pyrenees in what promises to be the race's first major turning point.
"It's going to be one of the key days,'' two-time runner-up Cadel Evans said. "There'll be fireworks, don't worry.''
The test comes Saturday, a day after after Norway's Thor Hushovd won the 13th stage and France's Thomas Voeckler kept the yellow jersey.
It gets serious now, with Evans ready to take on defending champion Alberto Contador and the Schleck brothers.
Contador's right knee is still bruised but healing. The Schleck brothers are racing with - or against - each other depending on who is to be believed. Evans, an Australian, is gliding over obstacles with the cool of a surfer negotiating crushing waves.
Saturday's stage is the third consecutive day in the Pyrenees. The 105-mile ride from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille starts with a sharp climb up Col de Portet d'Aspet followed by two ascents up Col de la Core and Col d'Agnes. It finishes with a 10-mile climb to Plateau de Beille, a famed ascent that has a reputation for making, or breaking, contenders.
Although Evans and the Schlecks all took some time off three-time champion Contador in Thursday's 12th stage, the damage was not enough to seriously hurt Contador's chances.
"I will have to see my legs hold up and what the others do,'' the Spaniard said. "But if I get the chance, I will attack.''
He said he had a "little niggle'' in his knee at the beginning of the stage, but after that was fine. He banged the same knee in two crashes.
Contador finished Friday's stage nestled with Evans and the Schlecks. The contenders let others do the attacking on a 95-mile run that started from Pau and ended in Lourdes, home to one of the most famous Catholic shrines.
Voeckler leads Frank Schleck - the older of the two Schlecks - by nearly two minutes. But Voeckler is not a Tour contender and will probably lose the lead Saturday.
Frank Schleck is 17 seconds ahead of Evans, 28 seconds ahead of his younger brother Andy Schleck - twice a Tour runner-up to Contador - and 2:11 clear of Contador.
The Schlecks combined with Evans to distance Contador somewhat on Thursday. Contador thinks they picked the wrong enemy, and now must target Evans on Saturday to make up time on him.
Contador may not have his best climbing legs yet, but he can still play mind games with the best of them.
"Despite everything, it's the Schleck brothers who have to attack,'' Contador said. "Their situation is quite complicated. I think they missed a chance yesterday (Thursday) to put some time on Evans, who is very strong in time trials. They have to get the race going tomorrow.''
Contador's is playing on the possibility that the Schlecks could end up in a brotherly clash since neiter has won the Tour.
Do they put fraternity before ambition? Does the 31-year-old Frank step aside for the 26-year-old Andy? Does Andy quell his burning desire to surpass Contador and help Frank if the going gets tough?
"We should be over that question. There's never going to be a war, there's never going to be any fighting between us,'' Frank Schleck said. "The important thing is that one of us two wins the Tour de France. That's our dream and we'll do everything to make sure that it comes true.''
While the contenders took it easy Friday, Hushovd powered to the ninth individual stage win of his career. He has also won two team time trials, including this year with the Garmin-Cervelo team.
A burly sprinter by trade, the 33-year-old Norwegian is developing into a competent climber and an excellent downhill specialist. He has become a more complete rider, but it's too late in this race to become a contender.
Friday's trip featured one huge climb up to Col d'Aubisque, followed by a descent to finish lasting nearly 26 miles.
There were colorful sights lining the route up to the top of Col d'Aubisque, none more so than a cardboard cut out of a man dressed all in pink perched on a camper van holding a camera. It did little to distract Hushovd as he chugged upward.
He was more than one minute behind Jeremy Roy when the Frenchman went over the top, who was closely followed by countryman David Moncoutie. Hushovd caught Moncoutie, then worked with him to gain time on Roy, before leaving both behind in the last mile.
Hushovd is a world champion and one of the fastest going downhill. The secret to his technique? He has no fear.
"I learned that when I was little because I raced my bike a lot when I was young, and I did a lot of skiing. I think that helped,'' he said. "I can read the (whole) road. I don't look five meters ahead of me. I look 50 or 100 meters ahead, so I can see what the road is doing.''
Still, Hushovd had a good reason not to go too fast.
"I thought of my little girl (daughter) at home, who I adore,'' he said. "I couldn't take too many risks.''
AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin and Jamey Keaten contributed to this report.
Jerome Pugmire can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire