CHATEAUROUX, France -- Finally, the mountains.
After seven days of narrow, sinewy roads and sometimes fierce rain, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck await a change of scenery. They made it through the crash-marred first week of the Tour de France relatively unscathed. Although the hills in Saturday's eighth stage are far less daunting than the climbs to come in the Pyrenees and Alps, they will be a welcome sight.
"It will be a relief after several nervous and dangerous stages," Schleck said.
British sprinter Mark Cavendish won Friday's seventh stage. He did so in the same town -- Chateauroux -- where he won the first of his 17 Tour de France stages in 2008. Norway's Thor Hushovd kept the yellow jersey.
Another British rider, Bradley Wiggins, was knocked out of the race after breaking his left collarbone in a crash that took down several riders.
Cadel Evans remains in second place, one second behind Hushovd. Schleck is 12 seconds behind in seventh and Contador is 1:42 off the lead in 24th place.
Bigger gaps may start to appear by Saturday evening after the first of two straight medium mountain stages -- although Contador and Schleck might not attack each other just yet.
"Whether any of the favorites will be dropped depends on whether the race is hard from the gun," Contador said. "Hopefully, tomorrow when I wake up I'll be in perfect condition."
Saturday's ride up to the Super-Besse ski resort gives Contador, Schleck and Evans a chance to distance themselves from lesser climbers.
"The time gaps will be small but large enough to shift the overall classification," Schleck said.
The stage ends with a a short but sharp climb up to Super-Besse.
"It cannot be underestimated," Schleck said.
Contador was left with cuts and bruises when he came off his saddle two days ago. Wiggins, an outsider for this Tour who finished fourth overall in 2009, was not so lucky Friday.
Part of the same crash was RadioShack veteran Chris Horner. He fractured his nose and rode for almost 24 miles on sheer grit. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and a bruised calf, and his team will decide Saturday morning if he can keep racing.
Cavendish, who rides for HTC-Highroad, sprinted out of the speeding pack in the last few hundred yards, beating Alessandro Petacchi and Andre Greipel to the finish.
Cavendish celebrated the same way as in 2008, clasping his head in both hands at the finish line.
"It was a tribute to winning here three years ago," he said. "I wanted to do the same gesture as 2008."
When a dazed Horner crossed the line, the American hardly knew what town he was in -- let alone the names of the former French kings chateaux he rode past all day.
"Another day, another crash," RadioShack rider Yaroslav Popovych sang as he reached the sanctuary of his team bus.
Another rider, Astana's Roman Kreuziger, also went to hospital for a scan on his left wrist.
"Sorry for those injured today," Evans said. "Especially 'old mate' Chris Horner. Hope you're healing well."
Outside Sky's team bus the mood was downcast. Dave Brailsford, the team's manager, took in the news that his riders had lost their leader.
"Really bad day for the team because I was really looking forward to riding for him in the mountains," Sky teammate Geraint Thomas said. "We were lucky until now."
After Thursday's treacherous rainfall, described by Evans as the worst he had seen on seven Tours, riders again set off under a heavy shower Friday on the 135-mile trip from Le Mans to Chateauroux.
The rain was brief, soon turning to sunshine, and it appeared the stage would be a pleasant stroll through the French countryside as the pack let an early four-man breakaway go.
Riders casually picked up their lunch bags just after rolling across the Loire River at Chaumont-sur-Loire, traversing the former hunting grounds of Francois I and other French kings.
But there was no roast pheasant or wild boar, only bland energy bars on offer as riders passed the former French monarchy's most elaborate chateaux, including Chambord, Amboise and Chenonceaux -- the former residence of Catherine de Medici, perched on the River Cher with its sprawling gardens stretching into thick forests.
Then two crashes came out of nowhere, the second one taking down Wiggins and Horner and shattering the already battered pack again.