Roberto Damiani is Cadel Evans's directeur sportif, his confidant and the tactical mastermind behind the Silence-Lotto team which will attempt to keep the Australian in the yellow jersey on Sunday's first Alpine stage of the Tour from Embrun to Prato Nevoso.
I spoke to Damiani in Narbonne on Friday morning to look ahead to the most important week of his protégé's life.
Procycling: Roberto, how would you judge Cadel's Tour so far on the eve of the Alpine stages?
RD: It's all gone well up until now. Apart from that serious fall the other day, that is. We wanted to be right in the shake-up for the yellow jersey at Hautacam, and we were. I don't think it makes too much difference whether we have the jersey or not. It's true that, with it, the team's a bit more under pressure, but over the last two days we've shown that we can control the race without any great difficulty. It's also true that we don't have a team of great climbers - we hoped that Popovych would be a little stronger in the Pyrenees - but we do have a team which has been used to doing this kind of work for years with McEwen.
Procycling: You mentioned Popovych's mediocre performances in the Pyrenees. Was it simply a question of poor form?
RD: We've worked towards this Tour with him all year, and he rode well at Paris-Nice at the start of the season. He then had a series of little problems, particularly allergies, but we felt that he came out of the Dauphiné looking much better. It may be that his crisis at Hautacam was just an isolated incident. He'd got into a break that day and paid for the effort later ... Now let's see how he fares in the Alps, right from the Colle dell'Agnello [the first climb on tomorrow's Alpine opener to Prato Nevoso]. Popovych may not have great form but he is a fine professional who's always close to Cadel as long as he has the legs.
Procycling: Towards the end of stage 13, Cadel looked rather isolated. Was that indeed the case?
RD: We talked about that a lot last night...Certainly if you watch the end of the stage on TV, and you're focusing on the yellow jersey, Cadel looks like he's on his own, but if you look more closely, there are three or four team-mates no more than ten positions behind him. The problem was the he went to the front of the bunch, in amongst the sprinters. At that point, the other members of the team recognized the danger and stayed behind so that Cadel was never out of their sight and they were ready to react if something happened. When we asked them in the evening why Cadel was alone at the end of the stage, they said that, no, he wasn't alone, he just got away from us for a second, and we decided the safest place to be was just behind him.
Procycling: If you had to pick one climb or one point of a particular stage which is going to be decisive, what would it be?
RD: Tactically-speaking, the Colle dell'Agnello on Sunday will be crucial. More than the climb itself, what worries me is the flat section between the bottom of the descent and the foot of the climb to Prato Nevoso. If I'm honest, I'd say that's where CSC can get the most out of their power in numbers. There are fifty kilometres there where it's absolutely vital that we stay together and stay alert. Cioni and Popovych absolutely have to be there with Cadel.
The other climb that worries me is the Col de la Lombarde on the stage to Jausiers. The road there is very narrow, and the descent is very tough. La Bonette comes after that and it leaves you no time to recover, because, once you've reached the summit, it's all downhill to the finish.
Procycling: On paper, the descent off the Bonette looks very long and potentially decisive. Is that the case?
RD: It's going to be very important. If I had to choose two key tactical points in the Alps, it'd be the climb up the Lombarde and the descent off the Bonette.
Procycling: Changing tack slightly, what's been the reaction to the Riccò affair among your riders? Did they talk about it a lot on Friday night?
RD: Yes. Cycling's our sport, so we couldn't not talk about it. I was the first to tip my hat to Riccò after those performances at Super Besse and on the Aspin. I said that if he was that good on the climbs, we'd obviously unearthed a champion who'll draw in the crowds. If, however, his climbing ability was enhanced by doping, he has to get out and stay out.
We weren't shocked by his positive test. We were shocked by how strong he was on the climbs. I'd seen him at the Giro. He finished second there, which isn't to be sniffed at. But I'm just sorry that we talk about education, yet no-one ever says to some of these guys that maybe professional cycling isn't the right place for them. That might not be the case with Riccò - maybe he could have ridden at a high level even without doping - but I'm just sorry that people who try to do their job honestly and ethically pay for the stupidity of others. ...