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Tour de France Stage 8 Preview!

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Tour de France 2011, sunflowers. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty.

Now, with more climbing! Could Friday's stage have been any flatter? Well, say au revoir to all that, because on Saturday, there will be climbing.

The Tour de France continues its southward journey toward the Pyrénées with this 189 kilometer stage between Aigurande and Super-Besse Sancy. The stage runs flat for around 50 kilometers, then it's more than 100 kilometers of uphill racing as the Tour de France enters the Massif Centrale. It's a very triangular-looking profile. The riders will climb four categorized climbs, and there is a steep, 1.5 kilometer hop to the finish.

The Tour rarely finds its way into the Massif Centrale, the low mountain range that runs through central France. When it does, the racing is typically unpredictable, as the roads are narrow, technical, and typically, there is more climbing than the profile suggests. This is difficult terrain for the teams to control, so the early break has a solid chance to survive to the finish. Of course, they will have to make it over the climbs.

About those climbs. There are four categorized climbs on the menu for Saturday. The most significant climb in racing terms is the category 2 Col de la Croix Saint-Robert, which summits with 25 kilometers to go. The col runs 6.2 kilometers at an average gradient of 6.2%, and will almost certainly split the field. Sorry sprinter dudes! Here is the profile for the Col de la Croix Saint-Robert.

It's a rapid descent from the Col de la Croix Saint-Robert, and there follows about 10 kilometers of bumping terrain that mostly descends. The Tour sneaks in a non-categorized climb as a warm-up for the finale. Watch the positioning battle among the puncheurs and the general classification favorites start here. Then, it's on to the final climb of the day, 1.5 kilometer jump to the finish. The average gradient is 7.6%, so there's nothing easy about this one. Gilbert is already smiling. Here is the profile for stage 8.

Saturday will also likely to mark the end of Thor Hushovd's hold on the Yellow Jersey. Cadel Evans of BMC Racing Team sits just 1 second back on Hushovd, and this finish will suit his characteristics. Evans has been well-served by his team, who have kept him in the front and out of trouble throughout this crash-filled first week. It's not a sure thing for Evans, by any means, as the top ten of the general classification all sits within 20 seconds of the lead. Alberto Contador, currently at 1:42 in the general, may well put in a dig on this finish, too. He likes to play the surprise tactic, though by now, it's not much of a surprise. Here is the current general classification.

Will the break survive tomorrow? Really, it's impossible to know for sure. The roads are technical and this terrain is never easy for the chasers. The advantage is to the escape, but Gilbert's Lotto team may have something to say in the matter. Certainly, the Belgian would like another stage win. Does he have the legs to get one? We'll see tomorrow.