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ANTWERP, Belgium (AFP) — Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) will have to overcome a new challenge if he is to hold onto the yellow jersey at the end of Monday’s third stage of the Tour de France.
The 34-year-old Swiss took the jersey thanks to the bonus seconds he received for finishing third on Sunday’s second stage from Utrecht to Zeeland in the Netherlands.
The four-second bonus gave him a three-second lead over German Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step) coming into the 159.5-kilometer trek from Antwerp to the infamous Mur de Huy on Monday.
But the Mur is unchartered territory for the Trek time trial specialist, who has never climbed the short, sharp hill that averages a lung-busting 9.6 percent gradient over 1.3km.
“The bad thing is I never did the Mur de Huy so [it] will be a premier,” he said.
“I know what I have to do, ride at the front and be out of the chaos.”
Cancellara admitted he was even expecting to lose the yellow jersey, but he is confident he can win it back on Tuesday’s fourth stage over the cobbles.
And he was 25,000 euros better off at the start, as he was awarded a diamond trophy before the stage start as recognition of his 29th day in yellow in a city famous for its diamonds.
Behind Martin, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) is third at 6 seconds back, while Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Geraint Thomas (Sky) are 33 and 35 seconds back.
Cancellara won’t be fighting for the stage victory in much more temperate conditions than the first two days of racing — Saturday saw a heatwave in Utrecht for the opening time trial before wind and rain caused havoc on Sunday.
Monday’s stage should finish in bright sunshine and a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will likely fight for victory.
The Spaniard has won the last two Fleche Wallonne Ardennes classics that finish on the Mur de Huy.
But he will also be tasked with helping his team leader Nairo Quintana in his quest to start gaining back time on his overall rivals.
The Colombian Quintana and reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) both lost almost a minute and a half to Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) on Sunday, but they both could look to snare a few seconds in Huy.
“With the rain and the crashes we had a bit of bad luck [on Sunday] and we lost a bit of time, but we hope to get that back day by day,” said Quintana.
Nibali was equally philosophical: “That’s cycling, you have to accept the bad days. There’s still a long way to go in the Tour.”
Quintana, Nibali, and Contador all have the burst of acceleration that could see them challenge for the stage victory, which would bring with it vital bonus seconds as well.
Otherwise, Ardennes classics specialists like Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Daniel Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx) should also be in the mix.