METZ, France -- The Tour de France is over for some, but for the unscathed general classification contenders, the Tour starts now.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) survived a crash-marred week in Belgium and northern France and enter a weekend of racing that will sort the cream of this year's Tour crop.
Saturday's stage 7 up La Planche des Belles Filles, a short but steep finishing ramp and hilltop finish, should provide the first draft of riders capable of winning this Tour de France.
Sunday's lumpy stage that dips into Switzerland, from Belfort to Porrentruy, sees seven rated climbs, with the Cat. 1 Col de la Croix (3.7 kilometers at 9.2 percent) the day's final ascent before a short run toward the finish.
Team managers will say, and have said, all kinds of things to keep the hype down ahead of Saturday, but this is about reading between the lines -- the final 1,000 meters of Saturday's stage hit at 14 percent. Anyone who wants to be -- or can be, rather -- anyone at this year's Tour de France will be at the sharp end.
Wiggins finds himself seven seconds in arrears of Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), who has resigned himself to losing the yellow jersey Saturday.
The time gaps that matter from Wiggins are narrow: Denis Menchov (Katusha) is six seconds back; Evans, 10; Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) at 11; Andreas Klöden (RadioShack-Nissan) at 12 seconds.
Nicholas Roche (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) are all within a minute of Wiggins. Fränk Schleck (RadioShack), Robert Gesink (Rabobank) find themselves in a two-minutes-plus hole and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) fell out of GC contention after a heavy crash on the flat stage 6, from Epernay into Metz.
The contenders need time on Wiggins and Evans, who aren't afraid of winning (or losing) this Tour in the time trials.
"Certainly we'll see some attacks and people taking their first opportunity to make some time differences," Sky manager David Brailsford said. "It's a steep finish, that's for sure. But it's not as if it's a real mountain stage. I think what will be interesting is the change of rhythm, from the flat stages and that style of riding to the road slightly up. I think that's always a change, isn't it?"
Indeed it is. The Tour de France will not be won up La Planche des Belles Filles (the Board of the Pretty Girls) on Saturday afternoon. It probably won't be lost, either.
But the race will finally begin to sort itself out after a week of pandemonium in the sprint stages that doomed some GC dreams, and certainly the riders will take the measure of one another on the 14-percent grade. If Evans looks weak, why wouldn't Wiggins pounce, and vice versa?
"Legs are getting softened. Tomorrow will be the first test of who's really here for overall contention," Evans said after stage 6. "We'd normally say the real Tour starts tomorrow, but maybe it started today."
Wiggins' Sky team had yet to talk the race plan over on Friday morning, but road captain Bernhard Eisel said he expected the attacks to fly. Wiggins has said very little to the press since the Tour began in Liége, but his chief rival told reporters Friday it was an opportunity to make some time.
"You go in not knowing who's the best climber in the race, or who's bad and so on. But everyone one gets in looking for that, to get an idea of how everyone's going," Evans said. "That's the first thing, but then it's also an opportunity to make some time, hopefully... it's going to be an interesting race."
Yes, it certainly is. With Evans and Wiggins focused on one another, perhaps a Sánchez, Menchov or Klöden will find himself up the road. Perhaps.
"We came here to win the Tour," Eisel told VeloNews. "[Saturday] we will see who has the legs to win the Tour de France. We will see every GC team come to the front and try to get their GC rider into the climb at the best position as possible."
BMC manager Jim Ochowicz told VeloNews the team didn't ride the route before the Tour commenced.
"It's the start of the second part of the race with the first real climb and a climbing finish. We take it seriously. Cadel is going to test himself a bit, too," he said. "It's more going to be an evaluation after it's over, [Saturday] night."
That evaluation leads into a stage on Sunday that is perhaps even more of a test. The road to Porrentruy is rarely flat and though it isn't a mountaintop finish, the Col de la Croix will almost certainly see some sort of GC shake-up -- whether at the front or, as we saw in the mountains of the 2011 Tour, at the back.
The race's technical director, Jean-François Pescheux said earlier this year that he thought stage 8 could make the race. "In my opinion, this could very well end up being the key stage of the Tour," he said on the Tour's website.
But this, of course, all leads into Monday's 41.5km time trial between Arc-et-Senans and Besançon. Before the start of the Tour, Evans said that, "the Tour won't be won or lost in the mountains, it will only sort out he contenders... But the Tour will certainly be won or lost in the time trials."
So, we're onto a sorting out this weekend at the Tour. But it could very well be Monday before we see the first real test of this Tour de France. The race starts now.