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Tour de France

Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: It’s D-Day at the Tour!

A fresh Evans faces challenges from Contador and the Schlecks in the Pyrenees

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A fresh Evans faces challenges from Contador and the Schlecks in the Pyrenees

Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen finished 1-2 on the Plateau de Beille in 2007. The 2011 Tour returns there on Saturday, the third stage in the Pyrenees. Photo: Graham Watson

It’s the Fourteenth of July. Bastille Day. And it’s D-Day for the handful of riders who can still win this 98th Tour de France. A day when three tremendously difficult climbs in the Pyrénées will challenge the finest climbers and overwhelm the lesser riders who are not at their very best.

The brutal, crash-filled opening 11 stages have already eliminated five team leaders who set out from the Passage du Gois on July 2 with high hopes: Brad Wiggins of Sky, Alexander Vinokourov of Astana, Jurgen Van den Broeck of Omega Pharma-Lotto, and Chris Horner and Jan Brajkovic, both of Team RadioShack. And a few other leaders have reached the south of France as damaged goods, in varying degrees: Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer of RadioShack, Robert Gesink of Rabobank and Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Cervélo.

Like these latter four riders, two-time defending Alberto Contador of Saxo Bank-SunGard has been banged up in numerous crashes but insists that the knee he injured in a fall on Sunday is fully operational. If that’s true then he will be the key ingredient of these next three days in the high mountains — which could prove more destructive than next week’s finale of mountain stages in the Alps.

Opposing Contador are the only leaders with their ambition, health and teams intact: Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, Andy and Fränk Schleck of Leopard-Trek, Tony Martin and Peter Velits of HTC-Highroad, Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale and Damiano Cunego of Lampre-ISD. All of these riders are ahead of Contador in the general classification, and so the Spanish phenomenon has no choice but to start making up ground on them.

Virtual GC

1. Cadel Evans 1,916.5km in 45:55:05
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:03
3. Andy Schleck at 0:11
4. Tony Martin at 0:12
5. Peter Velits s.t.
6. Andreas Klöden at 0:17
7. Ivan Basso at 1:10
8. Damiano Cunego at 1:11
9. Nicolas Roche at 1:19
10. Robert Gesink at 1:35
11. Alberto Contador at 1:41
12. Tom Danielson at 1:56
13. Rein Taaramae at 2:26
14. Christian Vande Velde at 2:27
15. Samuel Sanchez at 2:35
16. Jean-Christophe Peraud at 3:06
17. Jérôme Coppel at 4:09
18. Levi Leipheimer at 4:50
19. Rigoberto Uran at 4:54
20. Ryder Hesjedal at 13:06

Thursday’s stage 13 will show us whether Contador has the explosiveness that allowed him to dominate the climbs in this year’s Giro d’Italia. But in Italy his opponents were not of the same class and depth.

Here’s a rundown on the three Pyrenean stages:

Stage 12: Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden, 211km
As always, this first excursion onto spinning low gears in the high mountains after more than a week of racing on the big ring comes as a shock to most riders. It’ll be six hours long with almost 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) of elevation change, ending with three giant climbs: the all-new 10km Cat. 1 Hourquette d’Ancizan as a warm-up; the familiar 17km hors-cat (above-category) Tourmalet; and the 13km hors-cat finale to the mountaintop finish at Luz-Ardiden.

2011 Tour de France stage 12 profile
The stage 12 profile

Being Bastille Day, the home fans will be hoping for a French stage winner. In fact, since World War II, only 15 French riders have won the July 14 stage in 64 attempts. The last one to do so was David Moncoutié, six years ago; but with the yellow jersey on the line the big guns will be shooting for this prestigious stage victory.

It’s interesting to note that whereas Lance Armstrong vigorously targeted the first mountaintop finish in his seven winning Tours, three-time winner Contador has yet to win such a stage. There’s a chance the Spaniard will be left with just one teammate by the final climb, which would give, in particular, Leopard-Trek’s Schleck brothers an opening to out-maneuver Contador should they choose to attack rather than defend on Luz-Ardiden.

Stage 13: Pau to Lourdes, 152.5km

2011 Tour de France stage 13 profile
The stage 13 profile

With the general classification better established after stage 12, the main contenders will be happy to have an easier day before the even more important third Pyrenean stage coming up. And though this stage climbs the more difficult side of the mythic Col d’Aubisque, a breakaway of riders low on the GC totem pole will almost certainly be well clear before then. Only 13km separates the end of the Aubisque descent from the finish in Lourdes, so a solo rider escaping on the downhill could easily win the stage. If not, two sharp downhill turns in the last kilometer might influence an eventual group sprint.

The Tour has only once held a stage finish in the pilgrimage city of Lourdes. That was in 1948 after a mountain stage over the Aubisque and ended in a three-man sprint taken by that year’s eventual Tour winner Gino Bartali of Italy ahead of two French riders, defending champion Jean Robic and a future champion Louison Bobet.

Stage 14: St. Gaudens to Plateau de Beille, 168.5km
This is one of the two toughest stages in the 2011 Tour de France, with seven major climbs, almost 16,000 feet (4,800 meters) of elevation gain and a finish atop the 16km-long Plateau de Beille that has several 10-percent pitches in its opening half.

The stage is almost a blueprint of the one in 2004 when Leipheimer said: “It was probably the hardest stage I’ve ever done. Little by little I ran out of gas. I was completely empty (at the end).”

2011 Tour de France stage 14 profile
The stage 14 profile

Leipheimer was stronger in 2007, the last time a stage finished here, conceding only 40 seconds to Contador and gaining 1:12 on Andreas Klöden and Evans.

There have been four Tour stages finishing at the remote Plateau de Beille, a Nordic ski station; all four have been won by the man who’d go on to win that year’s Tour: Marco Pantani in 1998, Armstrong in 2002 and ’04, and Contador in ’07.

Who will it be in 2011? The best bets are Contador, a more ambitious Schleck (but which one?) and a still-fresh Evans, who has the best support team in his career. It’s gonna be fun to watch!

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.