Lance Armstrong is well aware that the crucial third week of what is his final Tour de France campaign will either shape or end his yellow-jersey ambitions.
But the Team RadioShack captain has not ruled out being primed for his own attacks, or those from his key rivals, as the race heads steadily into the Alps this weekend.
The hilly seventh stage on Saturday is a 165.5km ride from Tournus that finishes with an easy 14km climb to Les Rousses ski station. But it is the eighth stage that most of the contenders appear to have pinpointed.
Armstrong finished the sixth stage Friday in the safety of the peloton as HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish took his second sprint win in as many days to claim his 12th career victory on the race.
And with a time deficit to rivals Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Alberto Contador (Astana) after a setback on the cobbles of stage three the 38-year-old American is expected to put his RadioShack team to work this weekend.
“We might have had that bad luck on the pavé, but the classification starts tomorrow, though it really starts on Sunday,” said the American. “I would look for more animation and attacks on Sunday. These are days that we can’t necessarily win the Tour, but we can certainly lose it.”
Sunday’s eighth stage to Morzine-Avoriaz is considered significantly tougher than stage 7, giving hope to race fans that it will provide the first mountain thriller of this year’s race.
After Monday’s rest day, a third day in the Alps on Tuesday leads the peloton from Morzine to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, where the finish comes after a long descent from the Col de la Madeleine.
“I think there’ll be some guys attacking on Sunday, and Tuesday could be a complicated day, difficult and right after a rest day which is sometimes deceiving for guys,” said Armstrong.
“But this race is so weighted towards the last week that my impression and my opinion would be to wait (to attack).”
With Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden, Janez Brajkovic and Yaroslav Popovych among his helpers on the climbs, there is no reason Armstrong cannot aim for an eighth triumph in Paris.
“They’ll be good,” he said. “But even deeper than that, with Janez and Chris Horner, I think with those guys, if there’s a selection of 25 or 30 guys, or even less than that, I think we’ll still have five guys there. Numbers will help us.”
However, it also depends on Armstrong’s own form, and that of rivals like reigning champion Contador, last year’s runner-up Schleck, and two-time runner-up Evans.
Leipheimer admitted Friday he is suffering after this tough week of racing, but he is more than ready to give for the cause in the coming days.
“I’m not gonna lie. It’s the Tour, so I’m already feeling some heavy legs at times. But in the final, when you got to go I can go, and that’s what matters,” said the American.
After Armstrong was left to complete stage 3 on his own, the American was not happy with his team. Leipheimer seemed to suggest that all bad feeling has gone.
“Things haven’t gone our way this first week, but I think the last two days we’ve come together as a team and as a group I think we’re strong,” he said.
“I would say we definitely have a team for the mountains. Saxo really showed they definitely had a team for the other day (stage 3) but I predict that we have the best team for the mountains, and we need to show that.
“We have a lot of guys who can climb, and we have to take advantage of that. Tomorrow is such a crucial day, but the day after we’ll definitely see some gaps.”