Stage 18 of the Tour, a crucial time trial, gets under way

July 23rd, 2009 - 4:50 pm ICT by IANS  

Annecy, France, July 23 (DPA) The 18th stage of the 2009 Tour de France, a crucial individual time trial, got under way Thursday in the Alpine city of Annecy when Yauheni Hutarovich of Belarus rolled down the starting ramp.

The 40.5km course around the Lake of Annecy contains a 3.7km climb at an average gradient of 6 per cent and is made to order for riders such as Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, who won the shorter time trial that opened the Tour on July 4.

However, all eyes will be focussed on the top six riders in the overall standings - Alberto Contador of Spain, Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong, Germany’s Andreas Kloeden and the surprising British rider Bradley Wiggins.

The 29-year-old Wiggins is a multiple track cycling world champion and is considered one of the favourites, with Cancellara, to win the stage. He currently stands sixth, 4 minutes 53 seconds behind Contador.

The Spaniard showed in the opening time trial, where he finished second, that he has vastly improved in the discipline. Barring a crash, he should be able to maintain his hold on the race leader’s yellow jersey.

But the Schleck brothers, who dislodged Armstrong and Wiggins from the second and third spots in Wednesday’s mountain stage, are considered only mediocre time trial riders.

As a result, an outstanding performance by Armstrong, who excelled at the discipline before his retirement in 2005, will catapult the 37-year-old American into the top three again.

When the stage began, the fourth-place Armstrong trailed second-place Andy Schleck by 1 minute 29 seconds and Frank Schleck by 30 seconds.

Armstrong will have to make up lots of time on the Schlecks ahead of Saturday’s stage and the long, punishing ride up the Mont Ventoux, where the final standings will be decided.

The Schlecks proved in Wednesday’s stage that they can outclimb the American and Wiggins.

But Contador has shown that he is untouchable in the mountains and, barring accident or illness, looks to have his second Tour title locked up.

The 158 riders left in the race ride the time trial in inverse order of their place in the standings. The first rider on the course, Hutarovich, trailed Contador, who is to ride last, by more than 3 hours.

The Tour ends Sunday in Paris.

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