Tour de France: Sprinters move aside, it's time for the mountain stages

Two-time defending champion Alberto Contador is once again the favorite as the Tour de France heads into the Pyrénéan climbs this week and next week’s Alpine stages.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
Garmin-Cervelo rider Ryder Hesjedal of Canada leads the pack during the 11th stage of the Tour de France 2011 cycling race from Blaye Les Mines to Lavaur July 13. HTC-Highroad rider Mark Cavendish of Britain won the stage while Europcar rider Thomas Voeckler of France retained the leader's yellow jersey.

Mark Cavendish blew kisses to the crowd as he crossed the finish line in Lavaur, France yesterday. HTC-Highroad’s British sprinter was celebrating his third stage win of this year’s Tour de France, but also bidding adieu: He won’t have many more chances to win a stage until the Champs-Élysées.

Mr. Cavendish and his fellow sprinters are now moving aside as the battle for the yellow jersey – professional cycling’s most coveted prize – begins in earnest, when riders tackle steep gradients and long descents throughout the Pyrénées.

The Franco-Spanish mountain range hosted last year’s deciding stages, where Spain’s Alberto Contador overcame the Luxembourger Andy Schleck en route to his third Tour de France victory.

Once again, the two-time defending champion Contador is favored heading into the Pyrénéan climbs and next week’s Alpine stages.

Unlike last year, he has outside pressures that could affect his performance. He’s riding in this year’s race despite testing positive for clenbuterol, a banned muscle-building drug, during his 2010 Tour win. A hearing in August at the Court of Arbitration for Sport will determine his fate; if he’s found guilty, he’ll be stripped of all of his titles since last year’s Tour de France, including a victory in May’s Giro D’Italia.

For now, Contador’s focus is on his fellow yellow jersey contenders – Australian Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers, Andy and Fränk, among other riders.

After losing valuable time in a crash on the race’s first stage, Contador is currently 1 minute and 31 seconds behind the third-placed Evans, but is optimistic he can make the time deficit up.

“We can’t make any big conclusions from what’s happened so far,” he said. “We haven’t had an important climb to test everyone’s conditioning.”

Thomas Voeckler, the plucky Frenchman currently leading the race, isn’t considered to be an adversary.

“It will be difficult for me to defend the jersey tomorrow,” Voeckler said after Wednesday’s stage. “The general classification hopefuls will attack early in the stage.”

Thursday’s Stage 12, which ends at the ski resort of Luz-Ardiden, will also be a chance for Contador to quell concerns about a right knee injury he suffered during a solo spill on Sunday. It was his fifth crash of the race.

A series of crashes

Indeed, this year’s Tour has been marked by crashes. Some have been small pileups, others severe enough to force riders out of the race.

Toward the end of last Friday’s Stage 7, American Christopher Horner of RadioShack broke his nose and sustained a concussion during a spill. He finished the stage, but abandoned the Tour that night.

"Unfortunately, the race is being decided by crashes,” Horner’s compatriot and teammate Levi Leipheimer said last week. “Of course, they’re part of the sport, but I don't think it's right to have [them] to this degree.”

On Sunday’s Stage 9, four riders withdrew after crashing on a slick descent. Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, unable to walk after suffering an injury, had to be pulled out of a ravine by teammates.

Sunday also saw the most terrifying crash of this year’s race – a French television car hit Spain’s Juan Antonio Flecha, who slid into Holland’s Johnny Hoogerland. Flecha hit the pavement and Hoogerland was flung into a barbed wire fence.

The car, which was authorized to be on the race course, was immediately suspended; Tour officials announced Tuesday that there would be more restrictive measures placed on media vehicles driving alongside the peloton. Flecha’s Team Sky and Hoogerland’s Vacansoleil teams are also pondering legal action against the driver, whose identity has not been released.

Doping worries

It’s not a typical Tour de France without doping casting a dark shadow over the race.

In addition to Contador’s participation, which Tour officials have downplayed, Russian Alexandr Kolobnev failed a drug test taken after last Wednesday’s stage 5.

Mr. Kolobnev, a rider for Katusha, tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic often used to mask other drugs. He left the Tour on Monday and has said he “does not know where [the diuretic] came from.”

Also on Monday, French anti-doping police searched Kolobnev’s hotel room for banned drugs, finding nothing.

It was their second publicized drug search of this Tour; on the eve of stage one, they seized and rifled through the bus of the Belgian team Quick Step.

"Fighting against doping is extremely complicated, but it's much easier when it's done together," said Tour director Christian Prudhomme on Wednesday. "And here is a good example of the anti-doping authorities working together.”

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