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Tour de France

Tour contenders wary of sneaky-hard stage 5 route

The Tour de France's first climbing test comes early. Although stage 5 isn't high mountains, it includes several categorized climbs in the Massif Central.

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LIMOGES, France (VN) — Alberto Contador and the rest of the GC favorites will be tested quite early this year, on day five Wednesday, when the Tour de France enters the Massif Central of France for a technical stage to Le Lioran ski resort.

Though not the big mountains of the Pyrénées or Alps, the 216-kilometer stage covers three category 3 climbs and two category 2 climbs before a brief 2.5-kilometer decent to Le Lioran. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) could lose his yellow jersey and a favorite could already crack given the rhythm transition, from the flats of Normandy and Brittany, to the climbs of France’s heartland.

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“Tomorrow is the first day where they will need to find the rhythm of the mountains,” Sky’s sport director Nicolas Portal said. “It’s not going to be super hot, but it’s just that they need to get into the speed. They have been in the hotel before the Tour riding, but not super hard, then the flat stages going fast with big gears. And then comes this day and ‘boom!’ They’ll have to climb and use their small 39-tooth ring.

“It is brutal, the last climb, the second last and the third last climbs are pretty steep. So if you don’t find your rhythm quickly you can struggle.”

Not since 1992, has the Tour de France climbed so early into the race. That year, the race began in San Sebastián with a time trial and already climbed the Jaizkibel in stage 2. Former director Jean-Marie Leblanc used to follow a strict formula: prologue time trial, flat stages for sprinters and climbs on the first weekend. New director, Christian Prudhomme is playing with that formula. Already in 2013, he brought back the opening sprint stage and this year, an early climbing stage.

Eyes are on two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador, who crashed on his right side in stage 1 and on his left side in stage 2. When the fireworks began at the end of stage 2, Sky’s Chris Froome, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and others distanced him by 48 seconds.

“My only thought is getting through today’s stage,” Contador said of the Tour’s longest day, a flat 237.5 kilometers to Limoges on Tuesday.

“I didn’t recover well overnight, I didn’t rest well. I won’t say that I feel better. I am the same as before. I can’t give power to the pedals, it’s natural, but I’m confident that with the days that pass, I’ll improve. Of course tomorrow will be hard day, but with this extra day today, maybe I can be ready.”

Contador does not have to climb to the heights of 2,000 meters as he does on Saturday, but survive several little pin pricks. In the final 50 kilometers, the Tour takes the stage over four short climbs, around four to seven kilometers each, but with gradients up to 8.1 percent and short, fast, and twisty descents.

BMC Racing’s men previewed the stage before the Tour, as they were concerned it could be crucial.

“We’ll get a sense of who’s going well and who’s not,” van Garderen said. “It’s a tricky stage. It’s not going to be as hard as the Pyrénées, but it will shake things up. I mean, you’re not going to see the Sagans and the Cavendishs there at the finish.”

Even if the classification men wanted to take it easy, the others like Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick-Step) will drive up the pace to try to win the stage, dislodge Sagan, and take the yellow jersey. Sagan leads by 12 seconds over Alaphilippe, 14 over Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and 18 seconds over a group with Froome, Van Garderen, and Alaphilippe’s teammate Dan Martin. Martin, of course, won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a stage in the Tour in 2013.

“It’s going to be a really nervous stage, a little unpredictable as far as a breakaway goes,” Martin said. “This early in the race, I don’t know if many GC teams will want to use up energy and control it.

“I know the area, I think I’ll be quite nervous with those typical French roads in the Massif Central, the hard road surface. It’s going to be a difficult day especially after all the kilometers in the last two stages.

“Peter has done some impressive stuff before, I wouldn’t rule him out, hanging in there until the finish, but we could see some gaps — hopefully so. Everyone is on his game in the big mountain stages, but on the surprise days, especially with the descents to the finish. On paper, it’s good for me and Julien.”