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Armstrong on guard as Tour moves into mountains

FROM his perch at second overall at the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong now gets to see what his rivals can throw at him in the first of the gruelling mountain stages.

After mostly flat, wind-swept stages along the Mediterranean rim this week, cycling's premier event shifts to a new phase in which the climbers get their chance to shine in today's marathon seventh stage.

The 224-kilometer (139.2-mile) haul from Barcelona to Arcalis, Andorra, features an uphill finish - the first and hardest of three days in the Pyrenees.

"Tomorrow is an important day," Armstrong said yesterday. "I don't know if it's the most important day, but it's definitely a big appointment on this Tour."

Armstrong was happy to emerge unscathed from yesterday's "nervous" rain-soaked, crash-marred ride from Gerona to Barcelona, won by Norway's Thor Hushovd in a sprint finish.

Two spills marred the last 10 kilometers (six miles) - one involving Yukiya Arashiro of Japan, another involving former world champion Tom Boonen of Belgium, one of Hushovd's sprinting rivals.

Armstrong trails Fabian Cancellara by less than a second in the overall standings. The Swiss time-trial specialist admits he's not the best climber, and that his is six-day run in the yellow jersey may soon end.

"What do I have to do tomorrow? It's a good question," he said. "It's been a beautiful week to be in this yellow jersey. ... I'm going to try to defend it but I don't know how well I can do."

Carlos Sastre, the 2008 Tour champion and one of the world's top climbers, is high on the mind of both Armstrong and his Astana teammate-cum-rival, Alberto Contador, as a potential attacker.

The 37-year-old Texan says the onus is on rivals like Sastre.

"If I had to try and guess, the others will attack," Armstrong said. "We are in a position where we can wait and watch the others."

The "we" is his Astana team - rich with talent and currently enjoying the luxury of four of the top five spots behind race leader Cancellara, who isn't a world-class climber. Contador, the 2007 Tour champion, is - and he trails a close third, 19 seconds off the lead.

During his seven-year reign at the Tour, Armstrong always made his mark by the first big mountains - methodically gaining the mental edge over rivals while keeping an eye back over his rear wheel.

Armstrong says the riders to watch are Andy Schleck, who is 1 minute, 41 seconds back; his brother and Saxo Bank teammate Frank Schleck, 2:17 behind; and Cervelo's Sastre, trailing by 2:44.

"I expect Carlos to make some accelerations," Armstrong said.

Such comments are surely part of an effort to get inside the minds of competitors in rival teams. But Armstrong will also have to keep watch on teammate Contador, the odds-on pre-race favorite.

"I know Alberto wants to assert himself in the race. I don't need a team meeting to know that," Armstrong said.

"If he goes and nobody can hang with him, I'll just stay with the other leaders," he added. "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."

Mountains have been given higher billing in this 96th Tour edition than in past years, and Friday's stage features the Category 1 Serra Seca pass and an uphill finish into Arcalis that's so tough it's beyond classification in cycling's ranking system.

The most challenging stage of this year's Tour will come on the penultimate day, with an uphill finish on the Mont Ventoux, one of cycling's most legendary climbs.

So far in his comeback, after 3-1/2 years in retirement, Armstrong has proven that he can hold his own in time trials and cleverly gain time in the flats.

The looming question is whether he can still climb.

"I feel good, I feel strong, recovering well, relaxed," said Armstrong. "It's been a while since I've ridden at the front of a big mountain stage, but I'll be ready."


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