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Selection Sunday: Tour shakeout looming in Alps

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Lance Armstrong of the US rides in the pack during the seventh stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 165.5 kilometers (102.8 miles) with start in Tournus and finish in Station des Rousses, France, Saturday, July 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Bas Czerwinski) Lance Armstrong of the US rides in the pack during the seventh stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 165.5 kilometers (102.8 miles) with start in Tournus and finish in Station des Rousses, France, Saturday, July 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Bas Czerwinski)

LES ROUSSES, France (AP) — Lance Armstrong is predicting a shakeout among the top Tour de France contenders with the race heading to the Alps for its first serious climbing.

The seven-time Tour champion and his main rivals struggled under hot and muggy conditions Saturday when French rider Sylvain Chavanel won a seventh stage that included six low- and midlevel climbs in the eastern Jura mountains.

It was a foretaste of the climbs to come: the pack embarks on serious Alpine punishment Sunday with a 117.4-mile jaunt that features two very difficult climbs in the run between the Les Rousses and Morzine-Avoriaz ski stations.

If the Texan wants an eighth Tour crown, he'll need to excel in the mountains. The stages in the Alps on Sunday and Tuesday are important, but four leg-straining days in the Pyrenees in the third week may be decisive.

While he "suffered" Saturday, "there will be selection tomorrow, it won't be like today," Armstrong said. Overall, he trails 2009 Tour champion Alberto Contador by 50 seconds and world champion and two-time runner-up Cadel Evans by 1 minute, 51 seconds.

Despite Sunday's uphill finish into Morzine-Avoriaz, Armstrong believes the day's first big climb — the 8.9-mile Ramaz pass — will be the key. It has patches where the gradient rises to nearly 10 percent.

"It's super hard if we have temperatures like this, people will just be stuck on the road," he said.

The forecast was for temperatures up to 91 degrees in the plains, and the 38-year-old Texan, who is competing in his 13th Tour, noted that roads can melt under the heat and cause havoc for riders.

"If you hit it just right (your tire) will slip for a while and then it will grab, and you'll just high-side (topple off) immediately," he said.

On Saturday, Armstrong and other leading contenders finished 1:47 behind Chavanel, the Quick Step rider who won his second Tour stage this year in the 101-mile trek from Tournus to Station des Rousses.

The Frenchman is known more for riding strong in breakaways than scaling high mountains and the pre-race favorites don't see him as a threat to their title hopes.

Chavanel wrested the yellow jersey back from Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, who struggled on the final climb and trailed 14:12 back. The Swiss rider wore it for six days this Tour and has no hope of recovering the coveted shirt now — he plunged to 58th overall.

They are the only two riders to have worn yellow this Tour: Cancellara won the prologue, Chavanel took the jersey with a breakaway win Monday and then the Swiss rider recovered it a day later when Chavanel ran into a mechanical problem on a cobblestone stretch — and lost time.

"I had legs of fire today. ... These are the types of climb that suit me," Chavanel said. "I'm going to savor it."

A staffer from Chavanel's Quick Step team squirted him with water as he ascended the mid-grade Lamoura pass into Les Rousses, the last climb, baring his teeth as he pedaled solo in the searing heat.

"It's the type of climb that I like, a 3- to 4-percent gradient," said Chavanel, after collecting his third career Tour stage victory. "You have to upshift into high gear."

On the final climb, Armstrong kept toward the front of the main group of contenders, with Astana leader Contador shadowing him. None of the overall favorites attempted an attack.

Chavanel said he got his "revenge" after losing the yellow jersey on the cobblestones Tuesday — when Armstrong also lost crucial time in the title chase because he had to change a flat tire.

Chavanel led Evans, an Australian leading the BMC Racing team, by 1:25 overall after Saturday's stage. Ryder Hesjedal of Canada was third, 1:32 behind. Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, the runner-up last year, was fourth, 1:55 off the pace, Contador was sixth, trailing by 2:26, and Armstrong was 14th, 3:16 behind.

Chavanel knows he must work if he wants to stay in yellow.

"The big names — Contador, Schleck, Evans — they're going to express themselves tomorrow," Chavanel said. "I'm going to work to limit the damage. I'm going to give it all I have."

Schleck, who along with Contador is among the world's best climbers, said Saturday's ride was "a lot harder than I expected," but "I had a good look at Contador and Armstrong, and they looked good."

"But I'm ready too."

Evans, speaking on French TV, said the finish was tough for many contenders and that he was happy about his position.

"The truth will come out tomorrow," he said.

___

AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.

 

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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