By his own admission, it was a confident Tyler Hamilton who addressed the Tour press corps on the rePICTURE BY TIM DE WAELE Tyler Hamilton, an enigmatic presence since the Tour began, took the opportunity to reassure supporters who had feared that his race could be comromised by a back injury sustained in Angers last Friday when he addressed the Tour's press in Limoges on Monday. "I was really suffering with my back," the Phonak leader confirmed. "Fortunately, now we have an osteopath with us who treated me. It feels a lot better now." Hamilton, a fourth-place finisher despite a broken collarbone last year, is unlikely to be fazed by what are trifling injuries compared to some in the peloton, and indeed his own medical history. A respectable, if unspectacular, prologue, followed by an accomplished, but ill-starred, team time trial, have the Bostonian trailing Lance Armstrong by 36 seconds on general classification. On a more positive note, Hamilton heads a queue of challengers to Armstrong in which Jan Ullrich stands only third. "From my point of view, there are two elements to take into account," Hamilton commented of his first week. "First of all, the team did a great time trial. Without the punctures and the accidents, we could have been fighting for first place. Secondly, have to acknowledge that we didn't have luck on our side. Then there was the misfortune of my fall." In recent days, Hamilton's Phonak team-mates have earned rave reviews for their stubbornness in the face of adversity in the team time trial. The esteem of their peers has followed: T-Mobile chief Walter Godefrrot predicted on Saturday that Hamilton's Swiss-based army will be the team to beat in the Massif Central. But if Hamilton's Tour launch has been beset by injury and bad luck, so has that of his team-mates. A succession of falls and a finger injury to Spanish lieutenant de luxe Oscar Pereiro have given rise to doubts as to whether Phonak can sustain the form it exhibited to all-conquering effect at the Classique des Alpes and Dauphin Libr in June. "I think that we're still strong," a defiant Hamilton affirmed on Monday. "You only have to look at the general classification (Phonak count five riders in the top 20 - Ed). The most important thing in the first week is to avoid falls which could put you out of contention completely. We just would have appreciated a bit more luck, but the real Tour starts now. Lance and Jan (Ullrich) are riding really well, too. It will be a real challenge but I'm confident. The stage to Saint Flour (stage 10, on Wednesday) will be really tough: you could say that the Tour begins there. "In terms of time, there is very little between the favourites," Hamilton continued. "Admittedly, the yellow jersey has an enormous advantage. He will fight until the bitter end; he's the French national champion and a good rider. I can imagine him being difficult to dislodge." Hamilton refused to commit on his team's likely strategy over the next three days, politely pointing out that this was "confidential information." He did drop one hint: "Of course, we'll have to attack. Alongside me, we have Oscar Sevilla, who could also attack. We have to ride at the front of the race." Viewed almost as a picturesque detour on the Tour route in recent years, the Massif Central's impact on the outcome of the race has been minimal since Laurent Jalabert's epic stage win in Mende in 1995. That year, Jalabert went on to finish the Grande Boucle in fourth position overall, by some distance his best showing in his home Tour. Eight years on it perhaps bears remembering that Jalabert's influence on Hamilton when the pair were team-mates in 2002 was significant. Whether, over the next three days, the American will draw inspiration from Jaja's pice de la rsistance on Bastille Day 1995 remains to be seen.