July 19, 2006

Tour still wide open before last mountain stage

By Jean-Paul Couret

LA TOUSSUIRE, France (Reuters) - The race by elimination in
this year's Tour de France will continue on Thursday in the
last mountain stage from Saint-Jean de Maurienne to Morzine.

American Floyd Landis became the latest victim of an
unpredictable race when, wearing the yellow jersey, he cracked
on the slopes of the final ascent on Wednesday.

Pre-Tour favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were swept
away on the eve of the prologue after being implicated in a
Spanish doping probe, Alejandro Valverde fell at the end of the
third stage and a below par George Hincapie has not recovered
from a poor time trial.

All this has enabled unsung Spaniard Oscar Pereiro to take
the overall lead but with four stages to go before the
Champs-Elysees finale on July 23, the race is wide open.

Pereiro will start the 17th stage only one minute and 50
seconds ahead of compatriot Carlos Sastre with German Andreas
Kloeden, Frenchman Cyril Dessel and Australian Cadel Evans less
than three minutes adrift.

"My goal is now to finish on the podium in Paris but in
such a crazy Tour, we have to take it day by day," Pereira

"When we see what happened to Floyd today, we have to
remain cautious.

Thursday's 200.5-km stage is not regarded as difficult as
the two previous days of climbing in the Alps which had summit
finishes at L'Alpe d'Huez and La Toussuire.

It still features five rated climbs and has more pain in
store for the riders who have been digging deep into their
physical and mental resources.

After a 65-km approach, the peloton face the long climb to
the Col des Saisies then head across the spiky summits of the
Aravis and La Colombiere and dive down to Cluses.

Beyond the third-category Cote de Chatillon looms the Col
de Joux-Plane and its infamous 11.7-km slope at 8.7 percent,
where Lance Armstrong suffered in 2000.

"That was the worst day I've ever had on a bike," the
seven-times Tour winner said afterwards.

The stage will end with the sharp and tricky descent to