Ex-Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis doesn’t need to dig too deeply into his memory to know that the next two stages of the race will be crucial for his CSC team’s yellow jersey chances.
For the man who ended the five-year yellow jersey reign of the Spanish time trial specialist Miguel Indurain with decisive attacks which began in the Italian Alps in 1996, taking the battle all the way to the race’s final time trial is not an option.
“The next two days are more like real mountain stages, and maybe we will have a different approach,” Riis said Monday following the 15th stage where CSC’s Frank Schleck took control of the race. “Tomorrow (Tuesday) is a big day, in terms of what we do the day after.”
For the five riders now sitting within a minute of Schleck, and despite Monday being a rest day, that could mean the toughest two days of racing they have ever experienced.
After the first of three days in the Alps, the race to succeed absent champion Alberto Contador is only just beginning. And if former race leader Cadel Evans manages to resist an expected CSC onslaught on the 16th and 17th stages he will go into the 20th stage time trial on the penultimate day with one hand on the yellow jersey.
For Riis, it’s not part of the plan – given the strength of Evans in the race against the clock.
While Evans would expect to finish among the top five on Saturday’s 53km time trial, both Schleck and his co-team leader Carlos Sastre of Spain would likely lose around three and up to two minutes to the Aussie.
With Evans only 08secs behind Schleck and 41secs ahead of Sastre going into Tuesday’s 16th stage, which features two killer ‘unclassified’ climbs before a long descent into Jausiers, CSC are primed to attack.
“We have a really strong team and that is what could be the key for us in the Alps,” said Frank Schleck, who had missed out on the yellow jersey to Evans by just one second on the 10th stage in the Pyrenees.
Australian Stuart O’Grady, who has the job of helping set a fast pace for his CSC teammates prior to the climbs before the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank join Sastre in trying to distance their rivals, feels that Evans is far from out of the race.
“I think Cadel is still a big favourite for the Tour. We’ve taken the jersey but realistically he’s going to rip two to three minutes from Frank in the time trial, and not much less from Carlos,” he told AFP Monday. “Cadel is a bloody good time triallist.”
But he believes that Evans, and teams which have only one leader – such as Denis Menchov and Christian Van de Velde – will be limited when it comes to dictating tactics over the next two days. Menchov is fourth overall at 38 behind Schleck and Vande Velde is fifth at 39.
O’Grady added: “Menchov and Christian are likely to choose the most secure rider that they know is going to lose least amount of time, and follow. I can’t see any of those guys attacking, because then they’re going to jeopardise their position and it’s a bit more of negative way of racing but that’s how it is when you’ve only got one leader.
“It means that Cadel has got to go on damage control on the bottom of the climb, and hope that he can pull that time back in the time trial.”
© AFP 2008