Truth Day in the Tour de France

Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, front, is chased by three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador of Spain. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Or maybe not. The leading contenders for the overall Tour de France victory might still be waiting until the Alps to decide things, but Saturday's Stage 14, the final climb in the Pyrenees could shake out a winner whether that is the strategy or not.

The stage rolls for 152 kilometers from west to east along the border between France and Spain before it gets really serious. There are a couple of Category 1 climbs in the interim, but those are followed by descents that should bring the pack, or at least the leaders, back together.

The day ends with a 16-k climb to the top of the ski station at Plateau de Beille. This uphill  finish has been the sight of four stage conclusions in Tour history, and each time (Pantini, Armstrong (2), Contador) the winner of the stage has gone on to win the Tour.

Plateau de Beille is a monster. It is a 10-mile climb at an average uphill grade of 8 percent. From the bottom to the top, the riders will climb a vertical three-quarters of a mile into the sky. If there is a rider who isn't meant to hang around in contention, he will be shaken free.

So far, it looks like Alberto Contador might be the surprise guy dropped from the pack of contenders. The defending champ, and the winner of this year's Tour of Italy, suffered some crashes in the early stages and his legs just don't look as strong as they did in the Giro.

At the moment, discounting the overall lead of yellow jersey holder Thomas Voeckler, Contador is more than two minutes behind Frank Schleck, and also trails Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego. Including Contador, the overall winner of the general classification will undoubtedly be one of these six men. But which one?

We could find out by the end of Saturday's stage. Voeckler will lose the yellow when he can't stay with this group up the final climb. Frank Schleck did all the work on Thursday in the first climbing day in the Pyrenees, but it could be he was the rabbit sent out by Team Leopard-Trek to see who the real rivals are. Contador didn't stay with Schleck, but Evans, Basso and Cunego looked strong.

It would make sense that Frank Schleck is the stalking horse for brother Andy Schleck, who was runner-up the last two years to Contador. Frank is a weak time-trial rider and, after the Alps, he will lose a lot of time in the TT stage that preceeds the ride into Paris.

Andy has improved that part of his game. He lost 1 minute, 45 seconds to Contador in the 40-kilometer 2009 time trial, but shaved that to 31 seconds in the 52-kilometer 2010 time trial. This year, the Stage 20 counter-clockwise time trial loop in Grenoble is a little hilly and that will make it less likely that Contador, or anyone else among the contenders, will get a significant time gap on Andy Schleck.

So, does Andy Schleck win the Tour de France. Based on what we've seen the last two years, and based on Contador's apparent lack of form, that's my guess. Evans has never been a closer in this race. The pressure or something always seems to get to him. Basso is a little past his prime and Cunego is a half-step below this elite group. All of those guys, including Frank Schleck could grab a step on the podium, but I think Andy will have the best view.

We'll know a lot more after they climb up Plateau de Beille today, of course, but the way the route shakes out, the most selective day might be the climb up the Galibier next Thursday when the race has the first of two consecutive uphill finishes in the Alps. That Stage 18, which features three hors categorie mountains, should  and it's made for a 1-2 punch like Frank and Andy Schleck. Not sure the other riders will have a worthy Sherpa from their teams to do the same work as Frank is expected to do for Andy.

The next day, the riders cross another face of the Galibier and then finish with a climb up the legendary switchbacks of L'Alpe d'Huez. In all probability, that stage will merely confirm what has already been learned. After that, it is the time trial and then Paris.

Here's a prediction for you. Andy Schleck wins, and Contador, winner of the last six Grand Tours he has entered, doesn't even get on the podium. Make mine Andy Schleck, Basso, Cunego right now. Your guesses are welcome as well.

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