Stakes will be high in Friday's first mountain stage of the Tour de France, which could determine who is the real boss in Lance Armstrong's Astana team and offer a chance to the Texan's rivals to make up for the time they lost this week.
Armstrong couldn't be in a better situation before heading on a 139.2-mile ride from Barcelona to the Andorran ski resort of Arcalis, which culminates at 7,350 feet. The seven-time Tour de France champion is second overall, just a fraction of a second behind Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, and nearly all his rivals are lagging far behind.
With Andy Schleck 1:41 behind, defending champion Carlos Sastre 2:44 back, two-time runner-up Cadel Evans lagging 2:59 behind and Denis Menchov 3:52 back, the road to an eighth Tour victory would appear wide open for the cancer survivor.
But Armstrong isn't really in command of his team like in the good old days and his biggest threat is within his own squad this year -- Spaniard Alberto Contador, regarded as the best climber in the world.
After conceding 22 seconds to Contador in the opening time trial last week in Monaco, Armstrong was able to leapfrog the Spaniard following an astute move during Monday's third stage. Before the mountains, where third-placed Contador is expected to be the strongest, Armstrong leads the Spaniard by only 19 seconds.
"Tomorrow is an important day. I don't know if it's the most important day, but it's definitely a big appointment on this Tour" Armstrong said after Thursday's sixth stage won in a massive sprint by Thor Hushovd of Norway.
On their way to Arcalis, Armstrong and Contador will first have to deal with the Category 1 Col del Serra-Seca before the climb to Arcalis, which is classified "beyond category." The final ascent is 6.5 miles long and has an average gradient of 7.1 percent.
"I know Alberto wants to assert himself in the race," Armstrong said. "I don't need a team meeting to know that. I know he is ready to go. If he goes and nobody can hang with him, I'll just stay with the other leaders. But I'll show up tomorrow morning, try to do my best, get to the top as quick as I can and we'll see."
During his dominant seven years on the Tour, Armstrong, who came back to competition this season after nearly four years in retirement, always took advantage of the first hilltop finish to hand a blow to his rival. But his last win in France was in 2005 -- and it remains to be seen of the 37-year old American's legs will respond if his younger rival attacks.
"Tomorrow is a very long stage and it could suit him well," the 26-year old Contador said. "If I see a situation that is favorable to me and if my legs respond, then I'm going to try and go for it."
Given the fact that four Astana riders are in the top 5 of the race, Armstrong and Astana manager Johan Bruyneel are considering that they don't have to set the tempo even if Contador, who won the Tour in 2007, has pins and needles in his legs.
"We are in a position where we can wait and watch the others, watch Carlos (Sastre), watch Evans, watch the Schleck brothers (Andy and Frank)," Armstrong said before the first of three Pyrenean stages scheduled this year on the Tour. "If I had to try and guess, I think the others will attack. I expect Carlos to make some accelerations."
Cancellara has been the only man to wear the yellow jersey this year but the Swiss isn't expected to fare as well as Contador, Armstrong and other strong climbers. Seeing Armstrong or Contador in yellow at the end of the longest stage of this year's Tour Friday afternoon is the most likely scenario, even if Bruyneel said the yellow jersey "is not necessarily" a priority.
On Barcelona's slippery roads, Hushovd defied the rain and the treacherous conditions to win the sixth stage. Hushovd, of the Cervelo team, collected his seventh Tour stage win by edging out two Spaniards -- three-time world champion Oscar Freire in second, and Jose Joaquin Rojas in third.
"I'm just too, too happy," said Hushovd, who won the best sprinter's green jersey in 2005. "It's true that it was a nervous day, too, because it was raining and the roads were slippery."
They clocked 4 hours, 21 minutes, 33 seconds for the stage, the same time as 40 other riders including Armstrong and Cancellara.
The Tour ends July 26 in Paris.