VITRE, France - Tour de France favorites, it's time to step up.
The race to become Lance Armstrong's successor begins in earnest Saturday with the first long time trial on a Tour marked by crashes and a doping investigation that has stripped the event of elite riders.
After an opening week when top riders took few risks and the glory belonged to sprinters like Robbie McEwen, the time trial should help reveal the true contenders in a depleted field.
McEwen's win in Friday's sixth stage was his third this year and 11th in nine Tours.
The Australian won in characteristic fashion, muscling past other sprinters. Among them was Tom Boonen, the overall race leader who clung to the prized yellow jersey but is frustrated not to have another stage victory to go with the four he has from previous Tours.
McEwen was effusive in thanking teammate Gert Steegmans, likening his sprint lead-in man to a French high-speed train. The Belgian acts like a booster rocket for McEwen in sprint finishes, pulling him along and positioning him for the final solo dash to the line.
"It's like sitting on my own personal TGV. I'm the only one with a ticket and I just have to get off at my station," McEwen said. "When he started, I really had to jump to go with him, and if I really have to jump to go with somebody in the wheel, it means that nobody can probably follow."
Stars of the fast and relatively flat first week - McEwen, Boonen and other sprinters - will cede the limelight. And Boonen will almost certainly cede the yellow jersey as well. That will now belong to all-arounders and mountain climbing specialists once the Tour heads south into the Pyrenees next week.
In fact, Boonen's fourth consecutive day in the race leader's yellow shirt on Saturday could be his last. The Belgian is not among those expected to shine in the time trial, which favors racers able to ride quickly and steadily over long distances.
Perhaps not since 1999, when Armstrong first took the Tour by a slim margin, has the outcome of a time trial seemed so uncertain. The seven-time Tour champion excelled in the discipline, winning nine of the 14 time trials of 10 miles or longer.
Of the four people who beat Armstrong in long time trials, only two are racing: American David Zabriskie of Team CSC and Saunier Duval's David Millar, a Briton back from a two-year doping ban.
The only other riders to beat Armstrong at the Tour time trial were German Jan Ullrich and Colombian Santiago Botero, and they aren't riding this time because of allegations they were linked to a doping ring in Spain.
Zabriskie, Millar and world time trial champion Michael Rogers could all make their mark Saturday over the 32-mile course that cuts a loop northwest of the Brittany city of Rennes.
But beyond them, all eyes will be looking at the performances of those expected to compete for the overall Tour title. Since Ullrich and Tour of Italy champion Ivan Basso were barred, predicting favorites is risky.
On paper, at least, there are many. They include Americans Floyd Landis, George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, Italy's Paolo Savoldelli, Germany's Andreas Kloeden and Portugal's Jose Azevedo. But because they have mostly concentrated on avoiding crashes in the first week, not on placings, judging their form has been difficult.
"We haven't seen the leaders yet, aside from the sprinters they have all been playing hide and seek," said Jacques Michaud, a race manager for Landis' Phonak squad.
The time trial "will give us a first snapshot of the form of the leaders. The Pyrenees will provide a second snapshot. Coming out of the Pyrenees, we will already have an idea of the potential podium in Paris."
Mountain climbing specialists such as Basque rider Iban Mayo or Italian Gilberto Simoni will be aiming to limit the amount of time they lose in the time trial, so they don't have too much to make up in the Pyrenees and Alps, which come in the third week.
With a couple of hills, a long flat section and sharp turns and roundabouts to negotiate, the time trial could create surprises. Landis is among those who plans to scout the route in the morning. Riders will set out individually, with Boonen going last because he holds the lead.
Doing well in the time trial is "going to give some people a lot of confidence," American rider Christian Vandevelde of Team CSC said. But a bad ride might "even end some people's Tour de France dreams. So, yes, it's a big day."
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