All eyes on Armstrong as Alps loom

Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck expect attacks from Lance Armstrong as the ground tilts upward.

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Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck will be among the Tour de France contenders keeping their eyes glued to Lance Armstrong and his RadioShack team on Saturday as the seventh stage takes the race into the Alps.

Ahead of the end of the sixth stage Friday Armstrong was 1:51 behind BMC’s Evans, the best placed contender, sitting third overall at 39 seconds behind Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara.

The first of three days in the Alps Saturday is a 165.5km ride from Tournus in southern Burgundy to the Alpine ski station of Les Rousses.

The already-battered peloton will tackle five medium-sized climbs before the 14km ascent to Rousses, and there have been hints that the race’s big guns will keep their powder dry for Sunday’s more difficult stage to Morzine-Avoriaz.

Stage 7 is more of an appetizer — the final climb’s average gradient is just 5 percent and it has been suggested that Cancellara, who is not a climbing specialist, will emerge with the yellow jersey still on his back.

Yet both Geraint Thomas, Team Sky’s Welsh debutant, and Evans, a former two-time runner-up, have a great chance of taking the race lead. Thomas is only 23 seconds behind Cancellara.

Nevertheless, Evans will be keeping a close eye on attacks from Armstrong, who has some ground to make up after losing time on the cobblestoned third stage.

“Even in these early days people will be looking for opportunities, and there’s a couple of guys on the back foot,” said Evans. “I know how it is in that position —you’ve got to look for opportunities everywhere.”

Evans, Schleck and Astana’s Alberto Contador were all big winners on stage 3.

Schleck is now sixth overall, 30 seconds behind Evans but 1:11 ahead of Armstrong, while Contador is ninth at 1:01 behind Evans and 50 seconds ahead of Armstrong.

Schleck has come into the Tour as the main challenger to two-time winner Contador after he finished runner-up to the Spanish all-rounder in 2009, albeit over four minutes adrift.

And the Saxo Bank climbing specialist apparently will be paying special attention to Armstrong.

“There’s two riders I need to pay close attention to, and that’s Armstrong and Contador. They are the strongest. Armstrong’s in good form, better than people might think,” he said.

Thomas, the Welsh former track cyclist, has brought an air of excitement to the Tour after a superb first week of racing, upstaging team leader Bradley Wiggins. Should he manage to pull on the yellow jersey, it would be a huge achievement for his team on its debut.

“It’s quite strange to be in this position, but it’s been a nice first week. It’s not bad really, is it?” he said Friday. “Obviously if the opportunity arose then I’d definitely try and grab it.”

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