After two weeks of phony war, the fight for overall victory in the Tour de France starts in earnest today, with Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador in pole position to take yellow in Paris.
The surroundings for today's stage victory in cycling's most prestigious race are hardly the most spectacular, a nine-kilometre summit finish in an out-of-season ski station in Switzerland. But glamorous or not, this is where the Tour's three-day incursion into the Alps begins, and with the bulk of the main favourites within two minutes of each other, there is everything to play for.
Armstrong and Contador are the only contenders to show their hands so far – Armstrong in a break on stage three, Contador in the mountains five days later. The two Astana riders have been shadowing each other since the race began in Monaco on 4 July, with neither able to gain a solid advantage.
In a week in which the battle for the overall lead has stagnated, the one key development was their team-mate Levi Leipheimer crashing out with a broken wrist. An outside contender for overall victory, Leipheimer was one of Armstrong's major allies, and without him, Armstrong will have to show his hand sooner than he may have wished.
Astana still have Contador in third overall, Armstrong in fourth and Andreas Klöden in seventh – the kind of domination that automatically threatens to sap their opponents' morale.
"The biggest single factor that Armstrong has in his favour is the generalised kind of psychosis about him," said Roberto Damiani, sports director at Silence-Lotto for the Australian Cadel Evans, who took second in 2007 and 2008. "It's like his rivals have been frozen in the headlights.
"Now they have to attack, or we'll end up with Rinaldo Nocentini [the race's leader for a week, but expected to crack] riding in yellow on to the Champs-Elysées.
Briton Charly Wegelius, a strong mountain rider, said: "I've never been in a situation like this before, with one team dominating a stage race to this extent. More than an Armstrong factor, it's an Astana factor, with such a strong team and three in the top seven, it's strangling everybody else.
"Today [Sunday] is a day when you have to try and beat them [Astana], because if you're not doing it on a mountain-top finish, when are you going to do it?"
Interrupting the Astana hegemony in sixth place is Bradley Wiggins, who rides for Garmin Slipstream, but the chances that the Londoner will attack today are slim. Wiggins has never ridden so well in a major stage race, and given his lack of experience he will almost certainly play a defensive game.
"I'm going to take it day by day," Wiggins said yesterday morning. "I'm in the same situation as I was a week ago, except I moved up a place because Levi [Leipheimer] quit. So I've no idea how it can go."
For the other top British rider, Mark Cavendish, as a non-climber the Alps and the crucial Mont Ventoux ascent to come will be a question of survival. But should he get through, Cavendish has big ambitions.
Second in the points classification behind the Norwegian Thor Hushovd, the Columbia-HTC fastman could yet end up winning it overall if he wins next Sunday's final stage on the Champs-Elysées. Should he succeed, he would be the first Briton to gain a major classification since Robert Millar in 1984. But the Briton has to get through the Alps for the first time in his Tour career. For a 24-year-old non-climber, that is a big ask.
Yesterday Cavendish could have had a crack at the Tour's final pre-Alps bunch sprint. But the Columbia-HTC rider preferred to conserve his, and his team's, strength, taking the strategic decision to place one of Cavendish's key support workers, the American veteran George Hincapie, in the break of the day. Hincapie placed eighth on the stage, won by the Russian Sergei Ivanov, and was bitterly disappointed to come within only five seconds of wresting the yellow jersey from Nocentini.
As if that were not bad enough for Columbia-HTC, Cavendish was disqualified from 13th place and placed last for an alleged irregular manoeuvre. "It's made a bad day worse," Rolf Aldag, the team manager, said. "We didn't get the yellow jersey with George, and now this happens."
It was hardly the best of exits for Cavendish from the Tour's main action, but for the next five days in the Alps in any case, the Briton will barely register on the race radar. But in Paris a week from now, it could well be a different story.
The stage was marred by the death of a spectator, a 61-year-old woman, who was struck by a police motorbike. Two other spectators were injured.Reuse content