Lourdes: Now, the going gets really tough in the Pyrenees.
The Tour de France embarks Saturday on six mountain climbs that account for nearly a third of the total length of Stage 14, a 104.7-mile course from Saint-Gaudens to the Plateau de Beille ski station.
After two weeks of racing, a shakeout is expected that could — if history is a good predictor — help determine who wins cycling`s showcase in Paris on July 24.
"There`ll be fireworks tomorrow, don`t worry," said Australia`s Cadel Evans, a two-time Tour runner-up who is currently third overall: 2 minutes, 6 seconds behind race leader Thomas Voeckler of France.
About a half-dozen or so riders who still have a reasonable shot at overall victory played it safe in Friday`s stage from Pau to Lourdes, won by Thor Hushovd, or recovered from Pyrenean punishment a day earlier.
The Norwegian, best known as a sprint specialist, led a three-man breakaway and proved his mettle in the mountains, crediting his weight-loss regimen in the run-up to the Tour, and recent training on hard climbs.
Saturday`s stage will put to the test an unblemished record of the Plateau de Beille at the Tour: Every rider who has won a stage ending at the Nordic skiing Mecca in the Pyrenees went on to win the three-week race. The first was Marco Pantini in 1998, followed by Lance Armstrong — twice, in 2002 and 2004 — and Alberto Contador four years ago, on way to the first of his three Tour victories.
"I clearly remember the climb from 2007," Contador said of the 9.8-mile final ascent looming Saturday. "But the stage is not only the final climb. From the beginning of the stage, there are mountains so I will have to see how I feel."
"I believe that tomorrow` stage may be perfect for taking time if I`m O.K.," he said. "Plateau de Beille is such a hard climb."
The Spanish star, looking for his third straight Tour victory, has been nursing a sore knee and trying to overcome several race mishaps — including crashes — that have left him 4 minutes back of Voeckler in the title quest.
In an apparent tactical ploy to get into the minds of two top rivals, Contador suggested that Andy Schleck, his runner-up the last two years, and older brother Frank Schleck will have to make a move.
That`s because, as many race observers expect, the fraternal tandem from Luxembourg will need to chisel out a lead before the July 23 time trial in eastern Grenoble — a discipline seen as their weak spot.
"The Schleck brothers have to attack," Contador said, while not ruling out the prospect that he too may attack. "I have to see my rivals out, but if I see the opportunity I will move for sure."
Riders will first face the super-steep — if short at 2.7 miles — Col de Portet d`Aspet. Former Armstrong teammate Fabio Casartelli died after crashing on the descent from that pass in the 1995 Tour.
Then, it`ll be yo-yoing up and down for four other tough to really tough climbs before the day`s piece de resistance on the Plateau de Beille — one of the most grueling ascents in pro cycling.
"It`s gonna be a hard climb," Frank Schleck said, noting the peak`s history as the place where Tour champions shine. "I don`t feel any pressure ... and I`m convinced that I`m not going to have any regrets tomorrow."
Italy`s Ivan Basso, who narrowly lost to Armstrong on Plateau de Beille in 2004, predicted a "big fight" among the race contenders on Saturday. But "the winner tomorrow is not for sure the winner of the Tour," he cautioned.
But Voeckler, who is not seen as a title contender, is likely to lose the yellow jersey as the riders who are jockey for position and battle it out on the climbs.
Among them, Frank Schleck is 17 seconds ahead of Evans, 28 seconds ahead of his younger brother, 1:27 in front of Basso, and 2:11 clear of the defending champ Contador.