July 05, 2016

LIMOGES, France (AP) Chris Froome's team principal likened it to the first round of a boxing match.

Froome himself is expecting time gaps.

The overall contenders are expected to spring into action in Wednesday's opening mountain stage of the Tour de France.

The 216-kilometer (134-mile) route from Limoges to Le Lioran in the Massif Central features five climbs in a constant up and down finish, including the 1,589-meter (5,213-foot) Pas de Peyrol.

It will mark the first time that the Tour has gone above 1,500 meters this early in the race since the leg-breaking start to the 1979 edition, which began with three stages in the Pyrenees over the first four days.

''It's the first test and everyone will be looking at each other. In many respects I guess it's like the first round of a boxing match, where you come out and see where the opponent's at,'' Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford said Tuesday following Stage 4, which was won by Marcel Kittel in a mass sprint. ''It's exciting to get into this phase of the race.''

Froome, a two-time Tour champion, is well placed to defend his title in fifth position overall, 18 seconds behind leader Peter Sagan, who is not a pure climber.

Colombian challenger Nairo Quintana, a two-time runner-up to Froome at the Tour, is seventh with the same time as Froome.

Among the other contenders, Fabio Aru of Italy, Tejay van Garderen of the United States and Romain Bardet of France also share the same time as Froome.

''It's a bit too early to see a real GC (general classification) battle but it's definitely somewhere where there will be time gaps,'' said Froome, who won the first mountain stage at last year's Tour. ''It's not going to be a big bunch sprint. It's going to be a more select group coming to the line.''

While it may not be a tough enough test for Froome to take a stage victory, he could end up with the yellow jersey.

''Maybe it's a stage for someone like (second-placed Julian) Alaphilippe or (third-placed Alejandro) Valverde, Dan Martin maybe,'' Froome added. ''I imagine those guys are going to be the favorites for tomorrow.''

Valverde finished third overall in last year's Tour and is coming off a third-place result in this year's Giro d'Italia. The Spaniard was expected to support Quintana on the Movistar team.

''(Valverde) seems to be in good (form),'' Froome said. ''I wouldn't be surprised if he is just (preparing) himself to ride GC and have a two-pronged approach with Nairo. They definitely have the team to do it. ... Until he loses time I've got to treat him as a rival.''

Two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador fell in each of the opening stages and has bruises all over his body. He's in 54th place, 1:06 behind Sagan.

''I'm still hurting. I had another night of bad sleep. I need some more time to recover,'' Contador said before Tuesday's stage. ''As time goes by, things can only get better.''

Things will also get tougher, though.

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf

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