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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
The kings of the mountains
Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (left) and Lance Armstrong will be among the top riders in the mountains
Gonzalez de Galdeano and Armstrong will battle it out
The next seven days of the Tour de France - with five mountain top finishes - will see massive time gaps and retirements.

As always the Tour will be won and lost over the hilly terrain.

These are the cyclists likely to make their mark over the next seven days.

Lance Armstrong: Armstrong is not supposed to be a natural climber but his strength and determination has seen him dominate the mountains for his previous three Tour wins.

The Texan has reportedly shown signs of weakening in the hills, having fallen 11 seconds behind Santiago Botero in the individual time trial.

But do not be fooled.

Armstrong will have the making of all those around him and will pick his moment to attack and see his fellow riders falter.

The assistance of Roberto Heras, US Postal's climbing specialist, will help his cause.

Santiago Botero: The Colombian made an indelible mark on this year's race with victory over Armstrong in the individual time trial.

Santiago Botero
Botero has been training in Colombia

It remains to be seen whether Tour 2000's King of the Mountains has put too much focus on racing against the clock to the detriment of his natural climbing ability.

That seems unlikely with the Kelme rider having spent much of the year high altitude training in his home country.

Undoubtedly he will be latched on to Armstrong for the week.

Joseba Beloki: Third place overall in the previous two Tours show that Beloki is no slouch.

He has a strong group of riders around him and has been singled out by ONCE team boss Manolo Saiz as a clearer favourite for victory than team-mate Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano.

To date he has stayed with the leading riders through the mountains.

The one flaw in his style is that he is reticent to attack his closest rivals. This year could finally see a change.

Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano: Twelve months ago, the current yellow jersey wearer showed he was not worried by even the harshest of inclines.

Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano
Gonzalez de Galdeano in yellow

And the Spaniard has certainly progressed as a rider since then.

Has been well guarded by his ONCE team-mates in the flat and rode intelligently in the time trial but he could be overshadowed by ONCE's other team leader Joseba Beloki in the mountains.

Should he crack, his support will dry out rapidly.

While still in yellow, though, he looks likely just to keep his losses to a minimum.

Roberto Heras: His main task will be to guide Armstrong through the next seven days without a slip-up.

But it should not be forgotten that Heras is an immense climber in his own right.

A former winner of the Vuelta, the King of the Mountains jersey remains an attainable target.

Armstrong could be kind enough to give him a stage victory as well.

Oscar Sevilla: Sevilla has never been a strong time triallist but his ride on stage nine was poor even by his standards.

The Spaniard has slumped in the overall standings and will not make a challenge for the overall lead from five minutes back.

His saving grace, however, is his climbing ability and a stage victory looks a viable outcome.

His baby face belies his inner strength over the terrain and could launch an attack to upset the front-runners in the peloton over one of the earlier stages.

Richard Virenque: Forgiven, not forgotten seems to be the tag of the formerly disgraced cylist.

Richard Virenque
Virenque is aiming for the polka dot jersey

He was banned from the sport after admitting to taking illegal substances but has won his way back among cycling's elite and knows his time is running out at the age of 32.

He was second overall to Jan Ullrich in 1997 but more importantly has been the regular hot property for the King of the Mountains classification.

The prospect of a sixth polka dot jersey should be enough to inspire him.

Other contenders: Iban Mayo and Roberto Laiseka pose the major threat for the Euskaltel team to take a stage victory.

is another potential challenger, while Tyler Hamilton, used to sticking by Armstrong in the mountains on previous Tours, should also be there or thereabouts.

Finally, Dario Frigo is well used to challenging in the mountains during races like the Giro d'Italia and the Paris-Nice.

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