• Wed July 12 2006
  • Posted Jul 12, 2006
By John Leicester The Associated Press DAX, France — Now for the hard part. Having made it through fast and dangerous racing during the opening flat stages of the Tour de France, riders veer today into the Pyrenees for their first encounter with the high mountains. The steep, long climbs should help separate true contenders from those who can't make the gradient, offering a little clarity to a race devoid so far of any standout favorite. The spotlight will move away from sprint specialists like Spain's Oscar Freire, the winner of Tuesday's pancake-flat, 105-mile stage. Lithe climbers and riders eyeing the overall title will move to the fore. Freire, a three-time world champion, flashed past current world champ Tom Boonen and held off a late-surging Robbie McEwen to win a grouped sprint finish at Dax in southwest France. The victory was the Spaniard's second of this Tour — consolation for missing the expected birth of his first child in coming days. Contenders for the overall title did what they nearly always do in flat stages — stay safely out of the sprinters' way. The gap between race leader Serhiy Honchar of Ukraine and second-place Floyd Landis of the United States remained unchanged at 1 minute. Today Stage 10, live coverage on OLN at 4:30 a.m., with replays at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m., 9 p.m. Because the race is so open, a problem for Landis and other leaders is identifying which of their rivals they need to watch closely in the mountains and not let get too far ahead. "It's hard to make a strategy when you don't know how the race is gonna go," said Cadel Evans, an Australian among those who could challenge for the podium. He trails Honchar by 1:52. Landis said he expects the Alps next week to be more of a determining factor in the race than the Pyrenees. Nevertheless, the mountains that straddle France and Spain are no cakewalk. Today's 118.4-mile stage from Cambo-les-Bains to Pau has three climbs. The hardest, to the Soudet pass, ascends to more than 5,000 feet. The cyclists will ride uphill for 9.1 miles at an average gradient of 7.3 percent — far steeper in places — to the Soudet pass. They will approach from the west, the first time the pass has been climbed in the Tour from that side. Thursday brings the hardest Pyrenean stage, a 128-mile route with five hard ascents, including an arduous if not exceptionally steep uphill finish to Pla-de-Beret in Spain. Notes • American Levi Leipheimer's bad Tour got worse. A tire problem cost him 26 seconds, adding to a large deficit he built in the first long time trial last weekend. He is 6:43 behind Honchar. • A poor performance in Saturday's time trial left the Discovery Channel team with little choice but to attack in the mountains. "The wait-and-see attitude is not an option for us anymore," team manager Johan Bruyneel said. American George Hincapie of Discovery Channel is 17th overall, 2:30 behind Honchar. • Seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong plans to join thousands of cyclists for part of a 444-mile recreational ride across Iowa. He will ride 77 miles from Newton to Marengo on July 27.

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