A taste of the mountains

On Friday, the Tour de France riders had a small taste of the climbing that faces them Saturday on the 162.5km (101-mile) stage 7 between Strasbourg and Colmar. The foretaste was the 2,385-foot Col du Donon, a 4 km-long climb in the Vosges mountains that was enough to split the peloton, and leave many of the sprinters behind. All the five climbs that await them Saturday are longer than the Donon, and the riders having trouble will be not only the sprinters but probably men like current yellow jersey Stuart O'Grady of Australia - who has trouble on long climbs. From Strasbourg, stage 7 goes

By John Wilcockson

On Friday, the Tour de France riders had a small taste of the climbing that faces them Saturday on the 162.5km (101-mile) stage 7 between Strasbourg and Colmar. The foretaste was the 2,385-foot Col du Donon, a 4 km-long climb in the Vosges mountains that was enough to split the peloton, and leave many of the sprinters behind. All the five climbs that await them Saturday are longer than the Donon, and the riders having trouble will be not only the sprinters but probably men like current yellow jersey Stuart O’Grady of Australia – who has trouble on long climbs.

From Strasbourg, stage 7 goes back along the last part of Friday’s course before heading south to the quaint Alsatian village of Andlau, 35km into the race, where the locals will probably be toting steins of the regional brew when the Tour passes through shortly before 2 p.m. From Andlau, the race heads up into the pine-forested mountains and doesn’t emerge until three hours later at the stage finish town of Colmar.

The day’s two toughest climbs, rated Category 2 by the Tour, are the 2788-foot Col d’Adelspach at kilometer 90 (almost 10km of climbing at an average of 5 percent) and the 3723-foot Col du Calvaire at kilometer 124 (more than 18km at 4 percent). Over the final 38km, the stage first drops steeply for 6km through the forest on narrow back roads to the day’s last climb, the 3202-foot Collet du Linge (6km at 3.2 percent). From here, after a couple of kilometers along a high ridge, the riders make a technical 20km descent into the streets of Colmar.

The proximity of the last peak to the finish should allow the men first over the climb to maintain their advantage to the finish. Who will those leaders be? Well, with rain in Saturday’s weather forecast, don’t expect team leaders like Lance Armstrong to take any risks on these twisting roads. Rather, the most likely scenario will be for an attack by riders who are already many minutes behind race leader O’Grady.

Among those more than 18 minutes back are climbers like Frenchman David Moncoutié and Russian Andrei Kivilev (both on the Cofidis, team); Spaniard Eladio Jimenez and Italian Leonardo Piepoli (both on iBanesto.com); and Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia of Euskaltel-Euskadi. As for the overall contest, if O’Grady falters, either of his Crédit Agricole teammates, German Jens Voigt or American Bobby Julich, would probably take over the yellow jersey.

The Tour last visited the Vosges mountains in 1997, when there was a battle for the yellow jersey between race leader Jan Ullrich and Frenchman Richard Virenque. That stage was eventually won by Virenque’s then teammate Didier Rous (who is now the French champion and the leader of the Bonjour team). The last time that the Tour went over the Col du Calvaire was in 1992, and that stage victory went to two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon, then at the end of his career.

Whoever wins this time will boost his confidence prior to the big climbs in the Alps starting on Tuesday. Sentimentally, the home crowds would love to see a French rider succeed, as Saturday is the famous 14th of July, Bastille Day. If it is a Frenchman, current King of the Mountains Patrice Halgand is riding well as is his Jean Delatour teammate Laurent Brochard. Look for both of these men to be on the attack.