The Tour de France hits the high mountains for the first time on Saturday, with a full-scale Pyrenean stage set to establish the first major differences and - perhaps - see Chris Froome in his first yellow jersey of the 2013 race.
Friday’s stage, won by Slovak Peter Sagan after British sprint favourite Mark Cavendish was dropped on a medium-difficulty climb mid-race along with roughly half the field, revealed nothing about the top favourites’ real state of form.
But after seven days of fraught but indecisive racing, Saturday, with two major Pyrenean ascents, the Col de Pailheres and the final summit finish at Ax-3-Domaines, the favourites’ cards will be truly face-up on the table.
The key question is if top contender Chris Froome, leading key rival Alberto Contador by six seconds, can broaden that difference and maybe repeat his solo stage win at the Tour’s first major summit of 2012, the Planche des Belles Filles. If he did so, the yellow jersey would automatically fall the 28-year-old Briton’s way - as it did for Sir Bradley Wiggins last year.
Whilst Froome has had rock-solid form all season and has won the key pre-Tour warmup stage race, the Criterium du Dauphiné, none of his strongest rivals in the race itself - Contador, Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez and Australia’s Cadel Evans - have dropped off the pace yet in the Tour itself. Nor can Froome’s Sky team-mate Richie Porte, lying eight overall, be ruled out of the equation.
A battle royale, therefore, should beckon, assuming the top names do not repeat Contador and Andy Schleck’s absurd slow-motion duel, each virtually braking going uphill in anticipation of their opponent’s attack, the last time the Tour visited the eastern Pyrenean ski station back in 2010.
Sky’s Team Principal Dave Brailsford recognised that Ax 3 Domaines was “not a monster mountain climb, but it’s hard.”
“From our point of view, the most important thing is that Chris and Richie are really looking forward to it, they can’t wait to get there. So from our perspective, we’re confident for them.”
Whilst refusing to confirm if Froome would repeat his 2012 attack, the first and arguably most important on the Planche - ‘who knows? who knows? I’ve got a crystal ball’ was his slightly testy response - Brailsford recognised that gaps could be as important as last year’s first mountain stage, where Sky shredded the front group to just five riders, took the teams prize, the lead and even, albeit briefly, the King of the Mountains title.
“Everyone’s going to see where everyone else is, it will be aggressive and I’m sure we’ll be as aggressive as most. It’ll be nervous, it’s like the first sprint stage of the race.”
“Chris is nearly in a league of his own when the climbs hit in, I really think he’s going to win this race,” the current yellow jersey Daryl Impey - widely expected to lose his lead pn Friday - said after the most recent stage.
Arch-rival Contador, meanwhile, was upbeat but quietly insistent that with the switch from flat stages to the Tour’s back-to-back mountain stages this weekend, it was difficult, if not impossible, to predict what would happen.
“Of the two days in the Pyrenees, we will see what everybody’s real condition is, particularly tomorrow [Saturday] because that is the toughest of the stages,” the 28-year-old Saxo-Tinkoff rider and double Tour win said.
If the yellow is up for grabs, what seems increasingly certain is that Mark Cavendish, now trailing green jersey leader Peter Sagan by more than 100 points, has very few chances of repeating his 2011 win in the same classification.
“I wasn’t the only one dropped on that mid-stage climb, there were about 80 others and there’s still plenty of sprints left before the Champs Elysées,” Cavendish told reporters. But his chances of wearing green in Paris, though, are looking increasingly remote.