Paris and the Tour de France podium may still be a long way off, but the yellow jersey mind games are beginning to take shape.
Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov is the leading favourite to succeed American Floyd Landis as the race champion, but on Saturday his German team-mate Andreas Klöden also threw his hat into the ring in commanding fashion.
Klöden, a runner-up in 2004 and a third place finisher last year, is scheduled to be Vinokourov's main support man in the mountains alongside Italian Paolo Savoldelli and Andrey Kashechkin. But the German's second place finish in the prologue, at 13secs behind time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, raised more than a few eyebrows.
Contrary to pre-race conceptions, Klöden seems to be in top form, and once the race hits the critical phase in the Pyrenees - for stages 14-16 - the 31-year-old German should be in even better form. And that allows embattled Astana team manager Marc Biver, who has been forced to defend Vinokourov's decision to work with disgraced Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari, to keep his options open.
"We have the chance to have two riders, maybe three with Andrey Kashechkin, who are able to win the Tour," Biver said prior to the start of the first stage, a 203-km ride from London to Canterbury. "We are here for Vino but if the race decides otherwise, we can play the Klöden card."
Klöden was the only yellow jersey contender who came close to beating CSC's Cancellara over Saturday's 7.9km race against the clock. Vinokourov was the next big contender in seventh at 30s, while Australia's Cadel Evans was at 36.
But Biver admitted it was just as well they avoided the burden of having the yellow jersey on their backs, and having to spend precious energy defending it. "It is much better that we have not won the prologue. So we don't have the yellow jersey too early in the race and we don't have to look after it. It would have been a huge pressure."
American outfit Discovery Channel, and their team leader Levi Leipheimer, are also harbouring yellow jersey hopes but they are happy to heap the pressure on Biver and his trio of contenders.
"Astana remain the favourites on paper because they have three riders who are in a position to win," Discovery Channel team manager Johan Bruyneel said. "But having three leaders does not mean you are sure to win the Tour."
The Tour de France crosses back over to Europe on Monday, and heads over the Alps then the Pyrenees before finishing in Paris on July 29.
© AFP 2007