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The mountains loom for Tour de France cyclists

 Andy Schleck of Luxembourg rides in the pack during the 13th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 196 kilometers (121.8 miles) with start in...

France Cycling Tour De France

Andy Schleck of Luxembourg rides in the pack during the 13th stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 196 kilometers (121.8 miles) with start in...

The Tour de France begins one of the most punishing sequences of stages in its recent history Sunday as the riders enter the Pyrenees for four days that include two ascents of the famed Col du Tourmalet.
Andy Schleck of Luxembourg holds the yellow jersey of overall leader with a 31-second buffer over the defending champion, Spaniard Alberto Contador. But that will be under threat throughout the final week of racing as the riders test their endurance and desire to win against some of the most difficult cycling roads in the world.
Sunday's 184.5-kilometer (114.7-mile) ride from Revel to the ski resort of Ax-3 Domaines will lead riders up two extreme climbs, including the Port de Pailheres, a climb so long and steep that cycling's governing body doesn't even classify it, to an uphill finish.
That's followed by two more tough stages in the mountains along the French-Spanish border, including a first climb of the Tourmalet. Then, after a much-needed rest day, on Thursday the riders turn around and cross the mountains in the other direction, to end at the top of the Tourmalet.
Though the mountains may not decide this year's race _ there is still a time-trial to come next Saturday _ it is certain to end many riders' hopes.
Schleck said he was looking forward to the battle with Contador.
"I respect him as a rider and admire him as a great person," he said. "I'm a bit nervous for tomorrow. I'm comfortable but I'm nervous _ and I think he is too."
The mountains will also decide the winner of the polka-dot jersey that designates the best climber, or King of the Mountains. The jersey is currently on the shoulders of Anthony Charteau of France, but as the bigger climbs offer more points, the competition is far from decided.
Meanwhile, the race for the green jersey for best sprinter will be put on hold over the mountains as the riders in contention for it struggle just to avoid expulsion for being too slow. Alessandro Petacchi of Italy holds the jersey by just two points from the Norwegian Thor Hushovd. Mark Cavendish of Britain, who won six stages last year and has taken three so far this year, is lying third.
Cavendish also won the sprint in Saturday's 13th stage _ but that only gave him second place in the race, as the pack couldn't catch Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, who finished 13 seconds ahead of everyone else to take his first victory in the race since he was excluded from the Tour and given a two-year doping ban in 2007.
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong lost yet more time on Saturday's stage and now lies more than 25 minutes behind Schleck. He has acknowledged that he now has no chance of overall victory, but it is unclear if he still has the strength for a mountain stage victory.
In response to a Twitter posting that suggested Armstrong was planning a surprise for Sunday's stage, Armstrong responded "I like the sound of it."


Updated : 2021-07-25 18:58 GMT+08:00