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By John Wilcockson
In the three days since Discovery Channel won the team time trial at Blois, its riders have had a relatively easy time defending Lance Armstrong’s yellow jersey. After another stage that ended in a field sprint Friday, Armstrong talked about “riding a medium tempo” and “getting a lot of help” from the sprinters’ teams.
That’s not going to be the case in any of the next five stages, starting with this weekend’s two days in the climbs of the Black Forest and Vosges mountains.
Armstrong admitted Friday: “I don’t know these stages.” That’s unusual for the master of knowing all there is to know about each Tour de France. For once, his archrival Jan Ullrich and his T-Mobile team have an advantage in that respect: Ullrich lived in this region for most of his career. He has trained over the hills of the Black Forest just as much as Armstrong has ridden the Texas hill country.
Also, the T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner squads are enjoying tremendous support this weekend in their home country. The opening 60km passes through the beautiful Black Forest — where hundreds of thousands of Germans are sure to be waiting to cheer for “Ulle” and his men, particularly Alex Vinokourov. At the same time, Friday’s stage 7 hero Fabian Wegmann of Gerolsteiner will be inspired to defend the KoM’s polka-dot jersey he took over in Karlsruhe,
The four Cat. 3 climbs in the Black Forest aren’t likely to be decisive because they are followed by 120km of flat roads in the Rhine Valley. But Armstrong’s team will have to control any attacks, especially as the race leader and his tactics guru, team director Johan Bruyneel, don’t want another “Pontarlier” situation — that was the breakaway at the 2001 Tour when a dozen riders (including the late Andreï Kivilev of Kazakhstan) gained a half-hour on the 222.5km stage 8 from Colmar to Pontarlier.
On this year’s stage 8, the longest so far at 231.5km, another Kazakh. Vinokourov, who was Kivilev’s best friend, could be the man that Discovery Channel has to keep in check. The stage returns to France for its final 85km, including this Tour’s first Cat. 2 climb, the 16.8km-long Col de la Schlucht, which tops out at an elevation of 3736 feet just 13km from the finish.
The Schlucht is not particularly steep (averaging 4.4 percent), but its length and proximity to the finish could see a lot of action. Armstrong’s men will have to ride strongly to set a high tempo (certainly not medium tempo!), in the hope that neither Vinokourov nor any of the other potential contenders has a chance to take back time.
It’s likely that a front group of 20 or so riders will go over the Schlucht , where the forecast calls for thick mist and the chance of a thunder shower. That would make the fast descent somewhat treacherous — particularly for a team that hasn’t scouted it and doesn’t know its potential pitfalls.
A Tour stage has never finished in Gérardmer, a tourist town of about 10,000 people set on a scenic lake deep in the pine forests of the Vosges. Maybe it will provide an opportunity for rising Spanish star Alejandro Valverde of Illes Balears to shoot for his first-ever Tour stage win or (why not?) American race rookie Chris Horner of Saunier Duval-Prodir.
Even more interesting will be to see the climbing (and descending) form of men like Ivan Basso (CSC), Floyd Landis and Santiago Botero (both Phonak), Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank). Michael Rogers (Quick Step), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and, of course, Ullrich and Vinokourov.
It should make great viewing!