Silence-Lotto team manager Marc Sergeant believes Australia's Cadel Evans has shown his rivals the tools that could land him an historic Tour de France yellow jersey in Paris.
But the Belgian admitted after a thrilling 10th stage to the summit of Hautacam that they may have to rely on other teams with similar ambitions if they are to hold off strong challenges from the likes of Danish outfit CSC.
"Everyone says we don't have the team to win this Tour, but Cadel is there," Sergeant told AFP after Evans took the yellow jersey by one second from Luxembourg's national champion Frank Schleck, of CSC. "Today I saw other teams who didn't have their leaders up there. I agree CSC is a strong team, Caisse d'Epargne is a strong team. But our leader is good, and we're going to help him as much as he can."
After Tuesday's rest day, the 11th stage Wednesday, the final day of racing in the Pyrenees, should allow Evans a relatively easy day in the saddle - especially what he's been through in the past two days.
Evans, the first Australian to wear the yellow jersey since Robbie McEwen's short stint in 2004, crashed heavily on Sunday prompting fears he had broken his collarbone again. After being patched up, he fought a consistent battle to finish the most difficult day in the Pyrenees relatively unscathed - despite threatening attacks by Schleck and his CSC team.
CSC's pace led to the collapse of several contenders, including Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, who is now over four minutes adrift. The only question mark was whether Evans - whose team is arguably weaker than those of some of his rivals - might have been better allowing Schleck to take the lead and spend the next week defending it up to key stages in the Alps.
Sergeant, who in Evans' past three participation has seen him go from eighth to fourth then second place overall last year, knows that some tough days of racing lie ahead. But he believes it is important that Evans gets a taste of the main prize.
"We have to savour this moment. We've worked very hard, four years, to be here and now Cadel is on the podium in yellow," he told AFP. "We have to put this in perspective. Yesterday he was just relieved to find out his collarbone wasn't broken, it's been broken about five times in the past. He was sore and stiff all over this morning, but he was good. He stayed with all the big favourites, (Denis) Menchov, (Carlos) Sastre, the only one who was dangerous was Schleck."
Perhaps more worrying for Evans is the fact that the two riders designed to help pace him up the climbs and counter attacks - Italian Dario Cioni and Yaroslav Popovych of the Ukraine dropped off the pace on the day's first climb, over the Col du Tourmalet, when CSC had set a searing pace.
American Christian Vande Velde, who held on to secure third place overall at 38secs behind Evans, confirmed: "CSC was unbelievable today. It was sickening how fast we were going. Cadel was hurting today. I don't know if he put himself into the hole doing what he did."
But Vande Velde, like Evans, is proof that yellow jersey contenders don't necessarily need their teammates to hold their hands all the way to the finish line.
Cioni would have liked to, but CSC's pace on the Tourmalet - apparently in a bid to eliminate the struggling Valverde - left him on the limit. But he believes that with the five top riders within a minute of Evans, having the yellow jersey leaves them with options.
"I think having the yellow jersey's always a good thing! It's better to have a small advantage than a deficit and then we'll see how it evolves," Cioni told AFP. "The gaps (to other big rivals) are so big that now the Tour is easier to control, you can target a few riders instead of a lot of them.
"We're ready. Until now we have saved energy for this occasion. Some of us are good on the flat and others better on the climbs and Cadel is a very good leader, so for now it's better to be in front than behind."
Silence-Lotto will now have to think about defending the lead, especially in the tough Alpine stages which begin on July 20.
But Vande Velde is among those who feels that CSC, with Schleck so close to Evans, will not shirk their race responsibilities.
"I think people ride whether they have the jersey or not," said the 32-year-old American, a former member of Lance Armstrong's US Postal team. "CSC is going to ride defensively whether they have the jersey or not, whether it's for Frank (Schleck) or Carlos (Sastre). I don't think it's that big of a deal."
And Cioni says Evans, after two days of savouring his small feat, will soon have forgotten that crash.
"I think now with the yellow jersey his morale will improve," he added.
Silence may not be golden for Evans, says Valverde
According to Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans' grip on the Tour de France yellow jersey is likely to be undone because of the "weakness" of his Silence team.
Valverde virtually dropped out of the running for the race's big prize on the 10th stage from Pau to Hautacam on Monday, when Evans took the race lead by a second from Luxembourg's Frank Schleck, of CSC. After the rest day on Tuesday, the race resumes with Wednesday's 11th stage from Lannemezan to Foix - a climbing stage which is not too difficult and should see Evans finish the day still in the lead.
Valverde and teammate Oscar Pereiro, the 2006 champion, however have picked Russian Denis Menchov of Rabobank and Spaniard Carlos Sastre, of CSC, to pip the Australian to the yellow jersey in Paris on July 27.
"I see Denis (Menchov) and Carlos (Sastre) as the main favourites," said Pereiro on Tuesday. "Sastre is still in the running although he perhaps lacks that little bit extra that could make the difference between winning the Tour or not.
"I think Menchov is a little bit stronger, he's going well. Cadel Evans' team is relatively weak, that's his main problem."
Valverde, who dropped to 14th in the race's general classification 4min 41sec behind Evans after his collapse on the climb over the Col du Tourmalet, echoed his teammate.
"I think practically the same thing," said the Spaniard, who began the Tour as the co-favourite with Evans, last year's runner-up. Silence and Rabobank don't have the strongest of teams and they're not great in the mountain stages. We can't discount Evans, but I think Menchov and Sastre are now the big favourites, especially Menchov."
The crucial stages of the race are now the three alpine stages, which begin on July 20, and the penultimate stage time trial, on July 26.
© AFP 2008