BOURG-EN-BRESSE, France (AP) – Slow through the flats, and fast in the mountains – that’s just what some riders are predicting as the Tour de France enters the Alps.
Belgian Tom Boonen won Friday’s sixth stage, ending a crash-prone and unusually slow first week in which sprinters ruled and two potential title contenders were injured.
Burning thighs and heavy breathing await as riders embark on three days in the Alps, starting with Saturday’s 122.7-mile course from Bourg-en-Bresse to Le Grand-Bornand, featuring the Category 1 climb at La Colombiere pass.
“You watch, it’s going to be … fast this weekend,” said David Millar of Britain. “Whenever you get into the hilly stages, everybody will want to go out on the break. No one has wanted to go this week.”
High headwinds across northern French farmland were the big deterrent. The leader has averaged 24.8 mph through six stages, down from 26.6 mph a year ago.
In 2005, with Lance Armstrong en route to a record seventh Tour victory, the pace was 29.8 mph.
For now, race favorites have been content to sit back and let sprinters jostle for stage wins early in the three-week race.
Former world champion Boonen thundered to his fifth Tour stage victory in a sprint at the end of Friday’s 124-mile trek from the Burgundy town of Semur-en-Auxois to Bourg-en-Bresse.
Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, the only man to wear the leader’s yellow jersey this year, held onto the overall lead by finishing in the pack.
A time-trial ace, Cancellara said he doesn’t expect to stay in yellow through the Alps. Germany’s Andreas Kloeden, the runner-up to Armstrong in 2004 and third last year, is second overall, 33 seconds back. And 21 other riders are within one minute of Cancellara.
But Kloeden’s victory hopes soured after he crashed into a ditch along Thursday’s frenzied stage across the Burgundy winemaking region, sustaining a hairline fracture of his tailbone.
His coach said Kloeden was riding with severe sciatic nerve pain.
Astana teammate Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan, also was banged up in another crash Thursday, suffering deep cuts on his knees.
Friday, he and Kloeden cruised gingerly in the back of the pack, eager to stay out of trouble.
Astana already has had enough of that. The team on Friday fired Matthias Kessler after the backup “B” sample from a surprise April doping test turned up positive for unusually high levels of testosterone. The German already had been suspended and was sitting out the Tour.
Last year, Astana was disqualified from the Tour on the eve of the race after five of its riders were linked to Operation Puerto, a Spanish doping investigation.
Over the last 14 months, the Spanish inquiry, doping claims against 2006 Tour winner Floyd Landis and a string of admissions about doping several top former and current riders has tarnished cycling’s image.
Few experts believe this race is totally clean, but the International Cycling Union has cracked down by getting riders to sign a promise they’re not involved in doping.
As the Tour enters the Alps, riders who might make a mark include Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, American Levi Leipheimer, Russia’s Denis Menchov, and Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers of Australia.
“Now, we’re really going to see the leaders who are going to want to position for the overall standings,” said French champion Christophe Moreau, who won last month’s Dauphine Libere stage race. “The setbacks for Astana’s Vinokourov and Kloeden … are going to change things.”
Associated Press Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.