Tour de France 2013: Climbs will separate pretenders from contenders

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ALBI, France —  When they sit down late on Saturday afternoon for the ritual they call the “apero” — meaning nibbles and alcoholic drinks — the French still won’t know who is going to win their beloved Tour de France this year.

They, however, might have a much clearer idea of who won’t win it.

Riders who don’t have the legs to carry them to victory in Paris, who have been bluffing and pretending to be strong in the first third of the 2,115-mile Tour, could be cruelly exposed on Saturday when the race sharply gains altitude in the Pyrenees mountains where France and Spain meet.

Although the two climbs on the menu aren’t the most brutal of this 100th Tour, they’re still tough enough to make all but the strongest riders struggle. Just how decisive the ascents prove will depend on how aggressive, ambitious and confident the strongest climbers are feeling. If they want to test overall race favorites Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, or if those two want to test each other, then Stage 8 offers the first real opportunity for them to do so.

“It depends if people want to hold their cards close to their chests or if they want to come out swinging,” said American rider Tejay van Garderen. “I expect for them to come out swinging, so there should probably be some big gaps.”

Almost certainly, Daryl Impey’s second day in the race leader’s yellow jersey on Saturday will be his last, at least this year. The first South African to wear that prized shirt doesn’t have the uphill bursts of speed to stay with Froome, Contador and other contenders for overall victory should they go at each other like hammer and tongs up to the Col de Pailheres, immediately followed by a slightly less arduous ascent to the Ax 3 Domaines ski station.

Impey is convinced Froome will be wearing yellow in Paris on July 21.

“The climbing ability he’s shown, he’s definitely nearly in a league of his own. He’s obviously a different climber to Contador, but I think Chris is going to be hard to beat.”

On a stage that, with the mountains looming, felt like the calm before a storm, Peter Sagan from Slovakia won the finishing sprint Friday in Albi, an enchanting medieval city on the banks of the Tarn river, dominated by its 13th century fortified brick-built Sainte-Cecile Cathedral and listed as a World Heritage site by the United Nations’ cultural agency, UNESCO. Impey rode strongly to stay in Sagan’s bunch and keep the race lead he inherited from teammate Simon Gerrans on Thursday.

Sagan is running away with the Tour’s chase for the green jersey, awarded to the rider who collects most points from sprints at the end of stages and during them. He won that jersey last year, too. Sagan is known both for his speed and versatility as a rider.

He has been all business since the Tour set off from Corsica on June 29. Since he was bloodied in a crash on the first day, Sagan has never finished lower than third in a stage (not including the team time trial on Stage 4) — with three second places, one third place and now a win on Stage 7. It took the pack up four moderate climbs on a 127.7-mile slog in intense heat from Montpellier.

Assuming Impey surrenders the race lead on Saturday, the 2012 Tour will get its fifth different wearer of the yellow jersey. The record at a single Tour is eight, which happened in both 1958 and 1987.

The 9.5-mile long climb to Pailheres, topping out at an altitude of 6,500 feet is tougher than the shorter ascent to Ax. But that last climb might be more decisive because it comes at the very end of the stage, meaning it could turn into an uphill sprint finish.

“We’ll know who has already lost the Tour and the contenders for victory,” said Alain Gallopin, a director on the RadioShack-Leopard team. “There’ll be no more secrets, no bluff.”

RadioShack-Leopard’s main contender for overall victory, 2010 winner Andy Schleck, on Friday lamented the team’s decision to cut ties with his brother Frank — the third-place finisher in 2011 who is absent from this Tourbecause he is completing a one-year ban for testing positive for a diuretic at last year’s race.

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