ALBI, France – When they sit down late this afternoon for the ritual they call the “apero” – meaning nibbles and alcoholic drinks – the French still won’t know who is going to win their beloved Tour de France this year.
They, however, might have a much clearer idea of who won’t win it.
Riders who don’t have the legs to carry them to victory in Paris, who have been bluffing and pretending to be strong in the first third of the 2,115-mile Tour, could be cruelly exposed today when the race sharply gains altitude in the Pyrenees mountains where France and Spain meet.
Although the two climbs on the menu aren’t the most brutal of this 100th Tour, they’re still tough enough to make all but the strongest riders struggle. Just how decisive the ascents prove will depend on how aggressive, ambitious and confident the strongest climbers are feeling. If they want to test overall race favorites Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, or if those two want to test each other, then Stage 8 offers the first real opportunity for them to do so.
“It depends if people want to hold their cards close to their chests or if they want to come out swinging,” said American rider Tejay van Garderen. “I expect for them to come out swinging, so there should probably be some big gaps.”
Almost certainly, Daryl Impey’s second day in the race leader’s yellow jersey today will be his last, at least this year. The first South African to wear that prized shirt doesn’t have the uphill bursts of speed to stay with Froome, Contador and other contenders for overall victory should they go at each other like hammer and tongs up to the Col de Pailheres, immediately followed by a slightly less arduous ascent to the Ax 3 Domaines ski station.
Impey is convinced Froome will be wearing yellow in Paris on July 21: “The climbing ability he’s shown, he’s definitely nearly in a league of his own. He’s obviously a different climber to Contador, but I think Chris is going to be hard to beat.”
On a stage that, with the mountains looming, felt like the calm before a storm, Peter Sagan from Slovakia won the finishing sprint Friday in Albi, an enchanting medieval city on the banks of the Tarn river, dominated by its 13th century fortified brick-built Sainte-Cecile Cathedra. Impey rode strongly to stay in Sagan’s bunch and keep the race lead he inherited from teammate Simon Gerrans on Thursday.
Sagan is running away with the Tour’s chase for the green jersey, awarded to the rider who collects most points from sprints at the end of stages and during them. He won that jersey last year, too. Sagan is known both for his speed and versatility as a rider.
Assuming Impey surrenders the race lead today, the 2013 Tour will get its fifth different overall leader.