Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 22 News List

Relative unknowns lead Tour's mountain assault

WIDE OPEN In the absence of Lance Armstrong, and with the expulsion of two major favorites, unknown riders could make a name for themselves this year

AFP , PAU, FRANCE

The pack rides in the mountains during the 190.5 km 10th stage of the Tour de France from Cambo-les-Bains to Pau in France on Wednesday. Juan Miguel Mercado won the stage and Cyril Dessel took the yellow jersey as overall leader.

PHOTO: AFP

The absence of the pre-race favorites on this year's Tour de France was never more evident than in Wednesday's 10th stage, the first to head into the high mountains.

After seven years of being dominated by the now retired Lance Armstrong and his team, the Tour appears to be open to even more riders than was first thought.

On the race's first real foray into the mountains, the American's former teammates at Discovery Channel were happy to sit back and wait for their main rivals, T-Mobile, to slip up.

The German outfit began the three-climb stage with the race lead and the advantage of having four riders in the race's top 10.

By the end, T-Mobile were happy to give up the yellow jersey and allow a bunch of relative unknowns to provide much of the entertainment on the first of two climbing days in the Pyrenees.

A Frenchman and a Spaniard managed to pull away from a small group of riders early in the stage, and with the peloton sitting back and keeping watch on each other, the front duo went on to contend the stage victory.

Agritubel's Juan Miguel Mercado took the win ahead of Frenchman Cyril Dessel, who grabbed the yellow jersey.

Despite his four and a half minute lead over the best-placed favorite, American Floyd Landis of the Phonak team, the AG2R rider knows his stay in the race lead could be short lived.

"I had a secret hope this season and that was to do something on the Tour. Not to win it. I know I don't really have a chance of that," Dessel said.

"But since I've got the yellow jersey I'm going to fight to keep it. After that I will revert back to helping the team leader Christophe Moreau," he said.

The chance of Moreau becoming the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985 has become news since the expulsion of three of the race favorites before the prologue.

However Moreau will first have to fight off a strong group of hopefuls which includes Landis, Australians Cadel Evans and Michael Rogers, German Andreas Kloden and Russian Denis Menchov.

Most of them were primed to attack if it got hairy on yesterday's 11th stage.

Whatever happens, some feel that with the absence of Armstrong and the expulsion of two major favorites in Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich before the start, the Tour has taken on a strange glow.

"This might be a very strange Tour," predicted Rabobank team manager Erik Breukink, whose main contender is Tour of Spain winner Menchov.

"I think there's a chance that an unknown, but not totally unknown rider, could win it," he said.

Before this year, Armstrong often made life hard for his rivals by delivering a sucker punch in the early mountain stages.

Last year Armstrong bounced back from a near disastrous day in the Vosges to reclaim control after he was beaten to victory on the 10th stage by Spaniard Alejandro Valverde.

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