By Mark Meadows
METZ, France (Reuters) - The Tour de France heads into the mountains for the first time on Saturday but the ascent to La Planche des Belles Filles is not expected to cause too many problems for favorite Bradley Wiggins and defending champion Cadel Evans.
The 199 km seventh stage from Tomblaine in eastern France only skirts the beginning of the Alps with the final climb the sole tricky section, where local rider Thibaut Pinot is expected to shine given he trains there regularly.
Tougher altitude stages await for the peloton and John Lelangue, team boss of Evans' BMC, believes the Australian can again prosper as the air thins out.
"La Planche des Belles Filles is the first test. It's probably not the stage in which the Tour will be won but you can lose the Tour in any stage," he told reporters milling around the team bus.
"It will be a good opportunity to find out where the leading contenders stand. It's a good climb for Cadel. We checked it thoroughly in spring and we know exactly what to expect.
"The next stage to Porrentruy is potentially harder but we rode it in the Tour de Romandie two years ago and as far as I remember, it didn't turn out too badly for Cadel."
However, the 35-year-old's performances this season have been patchy, in stark contrast to Briton Wiggins, who has triumphed in Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Dauphine in the build up to the Tour.
His Team Sky director Dave Brailsford expects to see more effective breakaways in the mountains after the peloton easily managed to swallow almost every break on the flat stages in the first week.
"La Planche des Belles Filles is a steep finish that is for sure, but it is not hard, it's not a real mountain stage," he said, confirming his whole team have ridden it and will try to hit the front.
"I don't think there's been any conviction with the breaks so far. On Saturday it will be slightly different. People might have a bit more purpose in the breaks and then later on I'm sure we'll see some attacks."
FDJ-BigMat's Pinot, the youngest rider in the world's top cycling race at 22, is likely to lead one of those attacks.
"When I go out to do my big mountain training, I go to climb La Planche des Belles Filles," Pinot said.
"But I'm not going to tell you I'm going to win."
(Additional reporting by Gilles Le Roc'h; Editing by Alison Wildey)