TOULOUSE // The small ski resort hub of Bagneres-de-Bigorre, which provides the finishing point for today's stage, has been known to topple champions in the past. The first really menacing climb of this year's Tour de France - with two first-category ascents - is synonymous with the day Lance Armstrong looked set to be denied a fifth Tour win.
Riding up from Bagneres-de-Bigorre on stage 15 of the 2003 race, the Texan caught a fan at the edge of the road and clattered to the tarmac. Having already struggled on the stage, many thought it would mark the passing of the crown of the Tour de France champion. However, his arch rivals that year, Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich, opted for the ultimate show in sportsmanship and allowed Armstrong to regroup before they tried to attack.
As it happened, the incident acted as the American's platform to winning the stage, and ultimately, that year's race. It is unlikely something quite so dramatic will happen this time around as the peloton ends up in Bagneres-de-Bigorre, whose usual population of just 9,000 will swell massively for the day. However, individual races will be won and lost on the two first-category climbs of this year's race. First up about the 152-kilometre mark is the ascent to the 1,569m Peyresourde Pass. And some 30km later is the climb up Aspin Pass, and both offer gradients in excess of one in eight in places.
The Tour organisers will be hoping the focus can return to the racing after Manuel Beltran, 37, a former teammate of Armstrong's, tested positive for the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO). The Liquigas rider produced a positive test in his sample following the first stage from Plumelec to Brest and was thrown out of the Tour and suspended by his team. French anti-doping agency AFLD also reported that up to ten riders in the field have already been warned about possible blood anomalies from samples taken on the eve of the Tour.
But this is not necessarily an indication of any wrongdoing by the riders in question. Beltran was not the only retirement on Friday after Lilian Jegou, a repeated breakaway rider in the opening week of the race, was forced to retire when he broke his wrist after hitting a tree. The injury at least does give him the consolation of returning to his wife, who is due to give birth this week. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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