French hopes of seeing one of their own riders fight for the Tour de France yellow jersey have been kept alive by a tiring, but optimistic Christophe Moreau.
Moreau will go into the first of three 'transitional' stages - which precede the race's first big time trial on Saturday - Wednesday in sixth place overall at 3min 18sec behind leader Michael Rasmussen. The 36-year-old AG2R rider is in the form of his life having recently won the tough Dauphine Libéré stage race, and then claiming his first national championship a week before the Tour.
It seems Moreau, one of France's most consistent stage racers in the past decade, has been given wings by wearing the French tricolour jersey, and by the recent birth of his daughter Margaux.
On Sunday's eighth stage to Tignes on the second day in the Alps, Moreau played a starring role by launching several attacks on the way to the first summit finish of the race. Those moves, which began 18km from the finish, boosted the chances of his rivals, such as Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans, but it did almost irreparable damage to Kazakhstan's pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov.
The Astana rider, riding in pain with knee injuries, is now more than eight minutes adrift after also suffering badly on Tuesday's tough Galibier climb, and he has all but relinquished his dream of winning the yellow jersey. On the final day in the Alps, Moreau stayed with the best yet again and was only really left trailing in the final two kilometres.
"I was confident throughout the stage," said Moreau. "I managed to respond to the favourites' attacks on the Galibier. "My job was to stay with them for as long as possible, and I think I fulfilled that requirement. Overall, it's been a positive three days in the Alps."
Given the climbing and time trialling strengths of Australia's Evans, Germany's Andreas Klöden, and to a lesser extent Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Moreau started the race as a relative outsider. But in what has been one of the most open races in years the big Frenchman has emerged as a rider who, as well as helping to weed out some of the big favourites, can cause problems for those who are still left in the race.
The proof of that, he claims, is that his rivals worked together in the finale of Tuesday's stage as soon as he had been left trailing by a few seconds. "As soon as I had started to fall back they all began working together at the front," said Moreau, who struggled to match the pace of Evans and Valverde on the small climb to the finish line. "I knew it would be hard to catch up with them on the final climb, but I know that climb very well and so I was happy to finally lose only a few seconds.
"My experience came to the fore. That's what the Tour is all about. You have to know how to handle things when you're a bit below par."
Moreau finished a promising eighth overall on last year's Tour, at over nine minutes behind disgraced American Floyd Landis. But with three monster Pyrenees stages still to be held, and two long time trials totalling 110km, Moreau's aim for a place in the top three is far from secure.
© AFP 2007