For the past week the Tour's fans have had their fill of bunch sprints, crashes and bizarre victory salutes such as Peter Sagan's hat-trick celebrations as he won a third stage yesterday. Finally, though, on today's first summit finish of La Planche des Belles Filles, though, the overall contenders should come to the fore in their own right.
Just six kilometres long, this climb in the Vosges national park in eastern France is "a tough finish, but it's not exceptionally hard," the Sky team manager, Dave Brailsford, said. "What's interesting is to see what effect the change of pace from the flat to the climbs has on the others. Our aim is not to lose time and if possible to be on the front foot."
Despite Brailsford's studied vagueness and attempts to play down La Planche's potential consequences, Sky's entire Tour squad have been to check out the climb, never used before in the race and resurfaced specifically for cycling's biggest bike event earlier this year. Others also feel it could be the first time the Tour really opens up.
"Normally the Tour's first mountains are a good first indicator of who's climbing well and therefore who will be there in the other mountains," added last year's Tour winner Cadel Evans. "But" [and given Evans' penchant for blasting away on ultra-steep slopes like today's, this can be taken as a warning to rivals like Bradley Wiggins] "it's also an opportunity to make some time."
What Wiggins, currently lying second overall, seven seconds down on Fabian Cancellara – by his own admission not a climber – can do on such a difficult ascent following his vast improvement in mountain climbing is just one question.
Wiggins' past history on such climbers is mixed. His experience on the far tougher Angliru ascent last September in the Tour of Spain – where he lost the race lead to Juanjo Cobo – is not encouraging. Fast forward six months to a shorter, but roughly as steep, climb to Mende airfield in Paris-Nice this March, however, and he held onto the top spot overall.
The yellow jersey remains tantalisingly close for the Londoner and it will be intriguing to see if – assuming Cancellara cracks – Sky, as the leading favourites' team, start to make the running as they did in Paris-Nice last year.
What is certain, in any case, is that Wiggins has come through the crash-fraught first week of the Tour with flying colours. After seven days' racing in 2011, the last fans saw of the Briton was Wiggins sitting in the back of an ambulance, nursing a broken collarbone. This time round he is uninjured, in good shape and ready to strike.
Yesterday's flat stage saw yet another litany of pile-ups with the biggest one in the Tour so far, 22 km from the finish, involving several of the key outsiders for the overall classification.
Only 70 riders of the 190 managed to stay completely clear of the pile-up, among them Wiggins and Evans. Frank Schleck, though, was not so fortunate, with initial TV shots showing last year's Tour podium finisher wandering around in a daze, looking for his bike – wrenched from underneath him by the impact of the crash. "It was the scariest crash I've ever been in," said Britain's David Millar, "we were banging into each other at 60-70kmh. I started landing on guys, but bikes were hitting me, chainrings were going up and over me and getting tangled up."
Following a furious pursuit, Schleck lost two minutes and nine seconds, as did other outsiders such as the 2009 Tour of Spain winner Alejandro Valverde of Spain, the 2011 Tour of Italy winner Michele Scarponi and Sky's versatile all-rounder Edvald Boasson Hagen.
This leaves them down in the general classification battle, but not out before the mountains – unlike Ireland's talented climber Dan Martin, and his team-mate, this year's Tour of Italy winner Ryder Hesjedal, who badly gashed his hip, both of whom lost 13 minutes.
The ever-versatile Sagan, on the other hand, was able to rack up his third stage win of the Tour in six days – and treat us all to the latest of his wacky salutes. After his "I can fly" gestures on stage one and "I'm Forrest Gump" on stage three, yesterday Sagan opted to do an imitation of the Incredible Hulk as he roared – literally and metaphorically – his way across the line.
"I like green," was the 22-year-old's humorous explanation of his arm-flailing gesture, a reference to the fact that he now has a 31-point advantage over his closest pursuer in the green jersey competition for best sprinter.
Mark Cavendish, caught up in the crash and six minutes down, if uninjured, has an 80-point deficit should he want to overtake the flying Slovak. And with every victory Sagan racks up (and he has 18 this season alone), "funny" victory salutes notwithstanding, he also looks set to become Cavendish's most serious rival in London's road-race, too.
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