After seven days of narrow, sinewy roads and sometimes fierce rain, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck await a change of scenery. They made it through the crash-marred first week of the Tour de France relatively unscathed. Although the hills in today's eighth stage are far less daunting than later climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps, they will be a welcome sight.
"It will be a relief after several nervous and dangerous stages," Schleck said.
British sprinter Mark Cavendish won Friday's seventh stage. He did so in the same town -- Chateauroux -- where he won the first of his 17 Tour de France stages in 2008. Norway's Thor Hushovd kept the yellow jersey.
Another British rider, Bradley Wiggins, was knocked out of the race after breaking his left collarbone in a crash that took down several riders.
Cadel Evans remains in second place, one second behind Hushovd. Schleck is 12 seconds behind in seventh and Contador is 1:42 off the lead in 24th place.
Bigger gaps may start to appear by this evening after the first of two consecutive medium mountain stages -- although Contador and Schleck might not attack each other just yet.
"Whether any of the favorites will be dropped depends on whether the race is hard from the gun," Contador said. "Hopefully, tomorrow when I wake up I'll be in perfect condition."
Today's ride up to the Super-Besse ski resort gives Contador, Schleck and Evans a chance to distance themselves from lesser climbers.
"The time gaps will be small but large enough to shift the overall classification," Schleck said.
The stage ends with a a short but sharp climb up to Super-Besse.
"It cannot be underestimated," Schleck said.
Contador was left with cuts and bruises when he came off his saddle two days ago. Wiggins, an outsider for this Tour who finished fourth overall in 2009, was not so lucky Friday.
Part of the same crash was RadioShack veteran Chris Horner. He fractured his nose and rode for almost 24 miles on sheer grit. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and a bruised calf, and his team will decide this morning if he can keep racing.
Cavendish, who rides for HTC-Highroad, sprinted out of the speeding pack in the last few hundred yards, beating Alessandro Petacchi and Andre Greipel to the finish.
When a dazed Horner crossed the line, the American hardly knew what town he was in.
"Another day, another crash," RadioShack rider Yaroslav Popovych said.