by Justin Davis
VITTEL, France, July 16, 2009 (AFP) – A potentially hazardous 13th stage ride into the hills of the Vosges Friday may reveal just how far some riders are willing to go to fight for the Tour de France yellow jersey.
On paper the 200km hilly ride from Vittel to Colmar looks easy compared to some of the mammoth climbs that will provide the big drama during a three-day spell in the Alps beginning Sunday.
However more than one rider has singled out stage 13 as one that could give Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre a chance to close the gap slightly on Astana’s two race favourites Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong.
“Some stages don’t look so hard on paper, but once you’re on the road it’s a different story,” said Australian Stuart O’Grady, who helped Carlos Sastre win the race last year and has the job of helping Andy Schleck this time round.
Featuring only 30km of climbing over five hilltop passes, the stage has nevertheless been designed to make some riders think twice about shrugging off the difficulty of the climbs in the Vosges.
The Col du Platzerwasel, whose summit is 62km from the finish, is a category one monster 8.7km long with an average gradient of a punishing 7.6 percent. Some sections near the bottom are over nine percent.
“It’s a real mountain stage, and the riders who haven’t taken the time to go and check it out first will have made a big mistake,” insists race chief Christian Prudhomme.
“With the Pyrenees early on, and Mont Ventoux right at the end we wanted to include a mountain stage that would allow some of the smaller contenders to go off on an audacious solo attack.”
Evans, Schleck and Sastre are unlikely however to be given much leeway by Astana.
That means their only chance could be to work together, or with other riders with similar ambitions, and combine their efforts to help put Astana to the test.
The only negative feature is the stage’s downhill finish, 20km after the summit of the day’s fifth and last climb, meaning that earlier attacks, even if successful, may be chased down on the descent.
Silence team manager Hendrik Redant believes a mammoth day of climbing up ahead on stage 15, which finishes on the summit of Verbier, will be more decisive.
But the Belgian hopes his leading rider, Evans, is able to benefit if an impromptu alliance forms on the road through the Vosges.
“Stage 13 is a very difficult stage but the fact that it’s on a downhill finish reduces the opportunities for guys like Cadel, Sastre and Schleck,” he told AFP.
“But who knows? If they manage to work together against Astana, it might just put a bit of pressure on them.”
Ahead of Thursday’s 12th stage, which is not expected to alter the general classification significantly, Contador and Armstrong were only 6 and 8sec behind race leader Rinaldo Nocentini.
Schleck is 1:49, Sastre 2:52 and Evans a rather more significant 3:07.
In a disappointing Pyreneean climbing trilogy, in which only one of the three stages ended on a summit, Evans and Schleck were the only challengers to try and loosen Astana’s grip on the race.
Both failed, but with a further four climbing stages after Friday, including the penultimate stage summit finish on the legendary Mont Ventoux, plenty of opportunities remain.