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Tour de France

Nervy Tour start gives way to showdown in the Pyrenees

After its usual nervous opening week, the Tour de France heads to the Pyrénées on Saturday for a first-round spar among the GC contenders

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ALBI, France (AFP) — For the leading contenders in this year’s Tour de France, the principal objective in a nervy first week has been to stay out of trouble before the arrival in the Pyrénées.

Corsica had its moments, especially on the crash-marred opening day, but for the most part the teams and riders enjoyed taking in the beauty of the Mediterranean island, which had never previously welcomed the sport’s greatest race.

Time losses were suffered in the fourth-stage team time trial in Nice, notably by 2011 yellow jersey Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), but he is confident that his best is still to come after emerging from the last three days unscathed.

And now the Tour will finally come to life on Saturday when the remaining 188 riders tackle the 195-kilometer eighth stage, from Castres south into the mountains that mark France’s border with Spain.

There will be just one climb, the fourth-category Cote de Saint-Ferreol, until the final 30km. Then the real fun will begin on the hors categorie Col de Pailhères, a climb of more than 15km at a gradient of eight percent, before the summit marks the highest point in this year’s Tour, at 2,001 meters.

“A few of the GC contenders have already suffered time losses in the time trial, like myself, but I think we’ll see the first signs of who is really here to win the race in the Pyrénées,” Evans said on Friday after the seventh stage, from Montpellier to Albi, which left him 31 seconds adrift of leader Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge) in the overall standings.

Several members of the peloton, including 2012 fourth-placed Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) and former top five finisher Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp), have already pulled out due to injuries in a first week which has seen numerous nasty crashes, but Evans is still fighting fit as he bids to become the oldest winner of the Tour at the age of 36.

Meanwhile, Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) has recovered from a shoulder injury suffered when falling in stage 1, and also insists he is over a back problem as he looks to show what he is made of in the mountains, and overall favorite Chris Froome (Sky) is untouched, save for a cut on his right arm.

“It’s been a nervous week, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose any time and so we can be happy,” said Froome, who, along with his Sky teammate Richie Porte, is eight seconds behind Impey in the GC but six seconds ahead of Contador and :23 clear of Evans.

Among cycling fans, the expectation here is huge, and some have already been waiting along the road going up the mountain for days.

At the end of May, the same Port de Pailhères pass that the peloton will use was blocked by snow, but now riders will arrive having become accustomed to searing temperatures in southern France in recent days, and even atop the pass temperatures should reach 68 Fahrenheit.

“Pailhères is one of the toughest mountain passes in the Tour, and will be especially hard because of the heat,” said Contador, who gave no hints as to whether he will produce one of his trademark attacks on the climb.

“We will need to keep an eye on the other riders’ tactics. Anything can happen.”

After the Pailhères, the stage will finish atop the Cat. 1 climb to the Ax 3 Domaines ski station. In 2010, Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) and Contador were battling it out for the yellow jersey when Frenchman Christophe Riblon won the stage — his only grand tour stage win to date.

Froome, Contador, and co. may feel that it is too early to be burdened with the responsibility of wearing the yellow jersey, but Saturday has the makings of a fascinating day, and Sky principal Dave Brailsford is confident that there will be plenty of excitement.

“I think there will probably be some action quite early. I don’t think people are just going to wait,” he said. “It might be a bit like the first round of a boxing match. I’m sure there will be a bit of sparring, with some of the riders thinking, ‘why not try and attack and see what happens?'”