After a week of time trials and field sprints, the Tour hits the mountains |

After a week of time trials and field sprints, the Tour hits the mountains

Andrew Hood

The Tour de France goes vertical today as cycling’s marquee race switches gears and heads into the French Alps.

The Tour’s top guns will be sparring up such famous climbs as Alpe d’Huez and Col d’Izoard in what’s sure to be an exciting three-day run in the Alps.

Four-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong will be trying to shake a rocky start, but a long list of contenders are eager to knock the Texan off his throne.

“Saturday is the first test to see where everyone is,” said Team CSC director Bjarne Riis, winner of the 1996 Tour. “The Alps will tell us who won’t win the Tour, not necessarily who will.”

Today’s climbing stage hits the Tour’s first big mountains, but ends with a thrilling downhill run, not a punishing climb that will favor the overall favorites.

In each of his four consecutive victories, Armstrong’s put down aggressive opening attacks to electrify the Tour’s first mountain stage. That likely won’t happen this year because Saturday’s climbing stage to Morzine ends with a descent, rather than a climb to the finish line.

Rivals are ready

Of Armstrong’s rivals, Italy’s Gilberto Simoni is the most dangerous climber, but he enters the Alps with a three-minute handicap to Armstrong, a huge margin that will force the two-time Giro d’Italia champion to attack even more aggressively if he hopes to dethrone Armstrong.

“The team time trial was a big disappointment, but we’re trying to look at the bigger picture of the whole race and we know that the two stages in the Alps are a great chance for me to fight back,” Simoni told Italian reporters. “If things go well this weekend I think I can save my Tour. It’s going to be more difficult to win after losing three minutes, but I think I can do something in the mountains.”

Last year’s runner-up, Joseba Beloki of Spain, has never had the strength to seriously challenge Armstrong in the mountains, but that hasn’t stopped him from saying he’ll try.

“This is my last chance to win the Tour,” said Beloki, 30, who’s finished on the podium the past three Tours. “I am tired of always finishing behind Armstrong. I will attack and try to do what I can. I’ve nothing to lose now and so want to try to turn things around.”

Tyler tunes

Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton made it through another day after fracturing his right clavicle in a spill Sunday. X-rays taken Thursday evening show no worsening of the injury, something Hamilton took in stride.

“My legs are good and I hope to do well, but I can’t make any guarantees,” he said. “Take away the injury and I have good form, but my body’s been fighting, fighting. It’s not just the fractured collarbone, but I have whiplash, aches and pains all over. I can’t sit on the bike like I normally do. It’s disappointing, but I am trying to get beyond it and look forward.”

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