Team Columbia manager Bob Stapleton is looking to Britain's Mark Cavendish for a Tour de France stage victory after his team missed out on an historic first stage win in Plumelec on Saturday.
Stapleton's team have come to the Tour looking to fight on several fronts, but at the start of the 2008 race - being held without a prologue for the first time in 41 years - he was reminded that they'll get nothing for free.
In a thrilling end to the race opener which ended on the 1.7km ascent of the "deceiving" Cadoudal climb, Stapleton watched in agony as classy Spaniard Alejandro Valverde ended his teammate Kim Kirchen's hopes of winning the stage, and pulling on the yellow jersey.
The Luxembourger showed his class by countering Germany's Stefan Schumacher as he launched an uphill drive for the line on the final kilometre, only to be upstaged himself when Valverde rapidly closed a 100-metre gap to go on and take the race lead for the first time.
Kirchen trailed in fourth, but Stapleton was still delighted at his team forcing the pace in the final kilometres to get Kirchen into a winning position. Now, the American is already looking to Sunday's sprint-friendlier second stage where Manxman Cavendish can mix it up with the bunch.
"We were going for the jersey, but I couldn't be happier with the performance of the guys. Kim Kirchen did a great job," said Stapleton, whose team has recently been re-named Columbia from High Road. "Kim has shown he's fit and motivated. And the guys probably rode that last 10, even 20 km at the front - so they're in form and doing everything right. Valverde was just too strong for them."
Sunday's second stage is a 164.5km ride over similarly undulating terrain from nearby Auray to St Brieuc on the coast. And with a flatter finish, Stapleton is looking for Cavendish, or German tyro Gerald Ciolek, to start rubbing elbows with some of the sprint's big guns.
"We're playing to our strengths, and looking at the next few days with 'Cav' and Ciolek. We'll get our chances in the next few days," he added.
Kirchen, whose big aim is to get in the mix for the yellow jersey after a seventh place finish overall last year, admitted there was little he could do against Valverde.
"I attacked when I thought it was best to but when I saw Valverde come past me there was nothing I could do," said Kirchen, who earlier this year beat Australia's yellow jersey favourite Cadel Evans into second place at the Fleche Wallonne one-day classic. "I'm not too disappointed. Once you're beat it doesn't matter whether you finish second or fourth. But I'm really happy with the way the team worked today."
Stapleton said Valverde was a class above the rest.
"I'm sure Kim is a bit disappointed because he could probably feel it and taste it, then Valverde ... a rocket ship right past him," he said. "He closed a huge gap of about 100 metres in 50 metres. Pretty explosive. When Kim exploded up the hill I think he might have gone a little too early.
"The hill is pretty deceiving. In the book it looks flat on the last 200 metres, but it's not."
© AFP 2008...