The concept of looking for allies with common goals in the tactical minefield of cycling's big stage races is not new, and can be a fruitful initiative for some. But Australian Cadel Evans has so far seen little evidence that he will be helped to beat the mighty Astana team of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong by any of his fellow challengers for the Tour de France yellow jersey.
Evans resumes racing on the 10th stage Tuesday a day after admitting he has his "work cut out" if he is to try and get back in contention for, never mind win, this year's race.
Mostly because of a disastrous team time trial on stage four, the 32-year-old now has a three-minute deficit to Contador and Armstrong, who are 6sec and 8sec off the race lead respectively.
Stuck somewhere in no-man's, Australia's runner-up in 2007 and 2008 is almost out of contention - but not far enough behind that his rivals will let him attack freely.
"I'm still not being given any leeway," said Evans on Monday on the race's first rest day. For his rivals, he added: "Three minutes over three weeks isn't much. I'd rather be at three seconds."
It means Evans is obliged to look out for attacking opportunities in the race's remaining five climbing stages, which begin Friday with the 13th stage from Vittel to Colmar.
Despite being aware of the benefits of making alliances, his "few friends" in the peloton are also his biggest rivals.
Another obstacle, Evans added, is that riders who are challenging for a place in the top ten, such as Italian Franco Pellizotti and Russian Vladimir Efimkin, are simply happy to sit on the wheels of Astana in order to finish "fifth or eighth".
"The GC (general classification) riders have to take a bit more initiative," Evans added. "It would be logical, for their part, to cooperate with me. But whether they will or not ... that goes back to the discussion about the people who want to race for fifth or eighth or whatever.
"If they do, then they might as well just give Astana the flowers and the podium places now."
With 12 stages remaining, the race is far from over and Armstrong said Sunday: "Maybe we're halfway done, but as far as selection (elimination), we're only 25 percent done."
That would give Evans, Andy Schleck, and defending champion Carlos Sastre a fair chance. Schleck is only 1:49 behind unlikely champion and race leader Rinaldo Nocentini while Sastre is 2:52 behind the Italian. And the possibility of a duel between Contador and Armstrong, after the American admitted "a little tension" does exist between the two, could become a key factor.
Meanwhile, Evans feels his chances of making real allies are limited.
"The problem is that most of my friends are also my greatest competitors and they usually want to beat me," said Evans, who claimed that he has more respect amongst his rivals than some people think. "When you're second and third at the Tour, a lot of people can get intimidated by you and don't give you much leeway.
"In terms of mutual respect from my competitors, I think I have a good deal more than what people see from the outside. But, there's some GC riders there who have been in the shadows and I'm sure at the least expected moment we'll see them come to the fore, and come out."
Contador famously beat Evans into second place in 2007 after making friends in the mountains with disgraced Danish climber Michael Rasmussen, who was thrown off the race for suspected doping while wearing the yellow jersey.
Contador was pushed into a corner Monday by an inquisitive media wanting to know how he is coping with Armstrong's admission. Although playing the team card now, once in the Alps his plans might change.
"All the riders in the Astana team are professional enough to work for all four main riders, I have no doubts about this," said Contador. "In the peloton, I have more affinity with some riders than others, just like Lance does. For the moment, it is not important to find allies yet."
© AFP 2009
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