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5 things to know about Tour de France

July 19, 2013

LE GRAND-BORNAND, France (AP) — Five things to know as the Tour de France enters its 20th stage on Saturday:

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1. THE FINAL SHOWDOWN — The Tour all comes down to Saturday: Chris Froome has repeatedly rebuffed attempts to wrest his yellow jersey, and has such a whopping lead now — his closest rival, Alberto Contador, is 5 minutes, 11 seconds back — that it’s almost inconceivable that he’ll lose it in Stage 20 unless a serious mishap befalls him. The 125-kilometer (78-mile) ride from Annecy to Annecy-Semnoz, featuring an uphill finish, will amount to the grand finale of this 100th Tour, and is really shaping up as a chase for the other podium spots. It’ll be a case of musical chairs: the Spaniard and three other racers are within 47 seconds of each other, including his own Czech teammate, Roman Kreuziger, and the young Colombian sensation Nairo Quintana, a Movistar climbing ace. Even though the Tour ends Sunday in Paris, the race’s final stage is flat — meaning Froome’s Sky team will be watching closely for any attempted breakaways. But more than that, tradition and fatigue hold that the ride onto the Champs-Elysees is largely ceremonial — at least until the expected final sprint.

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2. CONTADOR’S CONTENTION — Contador, now 30, is simply not the dominant force he once was at the Tour. The two-time Tour champion, back this year following a ban over a positive doping test, says he’s matured and learned how it’s important to be calm in high-stress situations. On the roads, though, he hasn’t let up and has injected panache into the race and trying nearly everything to cut the lead of Froome, with only mixed results. In one flat stage, he caught Froome and his Team Sky off-step — and erased more than a minute of his deficit. Then, he pedaled all-out in the final time trial, finishing second and losing just nine seconds to Froome. Sensing that Froome can’t be beaten in the mountains, Contador has attempted attacks on treacherous downhills or in valley flats — places where it’s hard to make up time. At times, that all-or-nothing approach has led him to burn out too early, as in Thursday’s ascent to the finish at the famed Alpe d’Huez in Stage 18. But still, Contador tries. On Friday, “we were able to attack a little bit ... but then I thought it was best to reach the finish line with Roman.” Unlike other rivals who just want to get a podium spot, Contador says he won’t settle for second-best: “For me, finishing second or 10th is the same thing.”

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3. FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD — On big days of racing like Friday’s, when riders cover more than 65 kilometers (40 miles) of climbs and can plow through 7,000 calories, they need to eat the right amount of food and take it in regularly. The calibrations are rider-specific. Omega Pharma QuickStep doctor Helge Riepenhof says it’s more about carbohydrate intake than calorie intake. Many riders chow down on pasta, porridge, some fiber, and muesli at breakfast, but they also need to take a break before the stage then eat again as the stage starts. “On a hard day like today, they know there’s no chance to survive unless they eat what we give them.” Too much food can lead to an upset stomach; too little can deplete blood sugar levels, and riders run out of gas. Sky sporting director Nicolas Portal said Froome gobbled down a bowl of rice at the finish in L’Alpe d’Huez on Thursday, after running short of sugar on the climb. At his warm-up Friday morning, Froome said he had porridge and an omelet. Teams load their cars with energy bars and gels. And after weeks of fine-tuned feeding, riders often get fed up — literally. “The last thing you want to do is wake up and stuff your face with food. But it’s just putting fuel in the tank: a lot of pasta, porridge, cereal, bread, omelet,” Orica GreenEdge veteran Stuart O’Grady said. Garmin Sharp rider David Millar said he eats “just gels” nowadays. “Literally, food’s just horrible to me now ... I don’t want to talk about it.”

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4. ADIEU, TOUR ENGINEER — The man behind the crafting of the Tour route — and keeping its often-unwieldy caravan in line — is calling it a day. After 36 years, including three years as a rider himself, Jean-Francois Pescheux is bidding adieu. Since the mid-1990s, he’s had a job of connecting the dots between the French towns that pay to host a Tour stage start or finish, and ensuring that everything runs smoothly once the race begins every year — including by using his baritone barking into the race’s CB radio to keep vehicles from disrupting the riders’ advance. The 100th centennial edition, he said, isn’t necessarily his masterwork: Tour organizers “offer up a menu and it’s the riders who manage it.” At times when he believes he’s laid out a great mountain route that’s likely to provide superb race drama, the racers don’t necessarily comply. Over the years, Pescheux has seen the race evolve from a somewhat parochial European affair into a global sports phenomenon, and insists that the Tour must maintain its character despite growing popularity. Pescheux says he’ll keep his eye on his successor, to ensure it remains true to its roots: “A cycling race is about a start line and finish line. The rest is decoration ... if the decoration doesn’t remain just that, then one day the Tour will be in danger.”

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5. ANNECY-NERY’S NOT BAD, EITHER — Saturday’s 20th and penultimate stage of the Tour is easy on the eye, if not the legs. Tired riders will mount the saddle in Annecy, home to one of Europe’s purest lakes, overlooked by a 12th century chateau and nicknamed the ‘Venice of the Alps’ because of its three canals crisscrossing through it. After three weeks of intense heat and grueling riding, the 170 riders remaining from the original 198 may be tempted to ditch their bikes and jump into the cooling waters of Lac d’Annecy. Instead, they have to chug up another two massive climbs on a 125-kilometer (78-mile) trek that includes two fierce ascents up Mont Revard — a Category 1-level climb — and then an HC up to the finish in Annecy-Semnoz. They are called HC — which stands for ‘Hors Categorie’ — because they are considered so tough they are beyond classification. After which time, the surviving cyclists will be too tired to care that Annecy-Semnoz was given the nickname ‘Salmon’ by Roman cartographers because of its fishlike shape, or that it offers a panoramic view of the Mont Blanc. They will already be thinking of putting their feet up in Paris on Sunday night.

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AP Sports Writers John Leicester and Jerome Pugmire contributed to this report.

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