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By John Wilcockson
The Discovery Channel team will probably try to stop Lance Armstrong’s main rivals from attacking him on Saturday’s stage 14 into the Pyrénées. But that won’t be a simple task on what looks like being a very long, hot day under a blazing sun.
In the four to five hours of racing before stage 14 even reaches the two forbidding climbs at the end, there are sure to be many attacks. And should those breaks include some of those riders between five and 10 minutes back on GC — such as Kazakhstan’s Alex Vinokourov (T-Mobile) and Andrey Kashechkin (Crédit Agricole) or Australians Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Michael Rogers (Quick Step) —the Discovery boys could be raced out before they even have to defend Armstrong’s yellow jersey.
Armstrong and team director Johan Bruyneel have already acknowledged that they will miss climber Manuel Beltran, and his absence will put even more pressure on Discovery teammates Yaroslav Popovych, Paolo Savoldelli, José Luis Rubiera, José Azevedo and George Hincapie. In turn, their other colleagues, Pavel Padrnos and Benjamin Noval, could risk being eliminated if they have to chase down a lot of attacks in the opening 175km.
Stage 14 is sure to be a killer. Starting right on the Mediterranean at Agde, it opens with 80 flat kilometers along the coastal plain, continues with a 40km stretch that contains four minor climbs on narrow back roads, and then heads up a deep canyon before tackling two of the toughest climbs in the Pyrénées. The first is the 15km, 8-percent Port de Pailhères, which has been rated hors-catégorie after the organizers mistakenly gave it only a Cat.1 designation on its first inclusion two years ago. The road over the Pailhères is so tight that the publicity caravan is being diverted around it — a rare happening at the Tour.
After crossing that peak, the racers will speed down a technical 18.5km descent to Ax-les-Themes, from where they go straight into the 9km, 7.3-percent climb to the Ax-3-Domaines summit finish. When the Pailhères-Ax-3-Domaines combo was used in 2003, it saw a dehydrated Armstrong almost cede his yellow jersey to Jan Ullrich.
This time, Ullrich (T-Mobile) is four minutes back on GC and will have to go on the attack earlier if he wants a chance of catching Armstrong. Instead, the danger for the Texan is KoM leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), who is only 38 seconds back and could take the yellow jersey should Armstrong show any signs of weakness. Also expect some action from CSC’s Ivan Basso (2:40 behind), Gerolsteiner’s Levi Leipheimer (at 3:58) and Phonak’s Floyd Landis (at 4:16).
The 2003 stage winner at Ax was CSC’s Carlos Sastre, but he’ll be engaged on team duties for Basso this year. Those riders who are now out of contention will try to go with the early breaks, which could gain enough time for the best climbers to fight out the finish. Maybe someone like Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo (55th at 48:51) or Liberty’s Roberto Heras (38th at 29:09) will get a chance to salvage their Tour with a stage win.