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A look ahead: A chance to escape?

Most people have figured out by now that Tom Boonen and Robbie McEwen are the hottest two sprinters at this year’s Tour de France, and that’s why their Quick Step and Davitamon-Lotto have done the bulk of the work on the three road stages to date, chasing down each day’s main breakaway with respectively 12km, 2km and 11km to go. That picture could change on Thursday because stage 6 from Troyes to Nancy is the hilliest one yet. Still heading east (with the wind), this 199km stage finally has some terrain conducive to long breakaways. The day’s four Cat. 4 climbs are evenly spaced, but there

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By John Wilcockson

Most people have figured out by now that Tom Boonen and Robbie McEwen are the hottest two sprinters at this year’s Tour de France, and that’s why their Quick Step and Davitamon-Lotto have done the bulk of the work on the three road stages to date, chasing down each day’s main breakaway with respectively 12km, 2km and 11km to go.

That picture could change on Thursday because stage 6 from Troyes to Nancy is the hilliest one yet. Still heading east (with the wind), this 199km stage finally has some terrain conducive to long breakaways. The day’s four Cat. 4 climbs are evenly spaced, but there are plenty of undulations in between, particularly in the 40km before the Côte de Maron, 13km from the finish. At 3.2km and 5.2 percent, the Maron is the hardest climb of the day and it could see an old breakaway caught and a new one formed.

The two strongest teams in the race, Discovery Channel and CSC, have both expressed an interest in seeing the race leadership change hands. Current leader Lance Armstrong says he would be happy to cede his place to one of his well-place teammates — George Hincapie (second at 55 seconds), Yaroslav Popovych (fifth at 1:16) or Benjamin Noval (eighth at 1:29).

Hincapie or Noval are the most likely to get in one of the breaks, while CSC would probably delegate Jens Voigt, Dave Zabriskie or Luke Roberts. Should riders like T-Mobile’s Alex Vinokourov or Discovery’s Yaroslav Popovych enter the mix then a full-blown battle would erupt.

That wouldn’t be dissimilar to what happened the last time a stage finished in Nancy, in 1988, when a break featuring some of the Tour’s top riders emerged on the last climb. The stage went to German Rolf Gölz (now a directeur sportif at Gerolsteiner) ahead of Etienne De Wilde and Gianni Bugno, while Canadian Steve Bauer took over the yellow jersey.

Once again, the winds will be blowing from the west, a fact that has made this the fastest opening week in Tour history. After five days and 664km, the racers are averaging more than 48 kph (30 mph)! The high speeds have yet to be accompanied by bad weather, but that looks likely to change.

Thursday’s forecast for the Champagne and Lorraine regions calls for rain showers throughout the day and temperatures only in the upper-50s. A possible thunderstorm at the stage end, with wind gusts approaching 40 mph, could make the race even more dramatic.

Tough conditions combined with high speeds might cause a number of riders to abandon the Tour. The first of the 189 starters to leave the race was Saunier Duval’s Constantino Zaballa, who pulled out on Wednesday suffering from an injured left knee.