By Hedwig Kröner in Montluçon
One day prior to the ultimate time trial of this year's Tour de France, speculation abounds as to the final overall podium in Paris. With four riders within 1'34 of each other, and a fifth at 2'39, the 53-kilometre race against the clock will decide the 2008 Tour winner by only small margins.
At this point, you could start comparing the favourite's times at the first time trial of the Tour, back in Cholet. But Team Columbia's directeur sportif Rolf Aldag said that the contenders' time trial skills weren't the only factor to take into account in the last test.
"At this point, after the Alps and almost three weeks of racing, everybody is tired," said Aldag. "So the time trial will not really be about time trialling talent, but more about tiredness; about who will somehow still be a bit fresh - and currently, nobody feels fresh. So we'll see how it goes."
Asked what his guess was as to the podium in Paris, the tall German sighed and smiled. "Currently, I would think Evans wins ahead of Sastre and Menchov," he said. "But it's really hard to say - you never know. Cadel also needed to work a lot on his own here, CSC had by far the strongest team in the mountains so they could play a little bit. It's really difficult to say how much energy that took out of Cadel. Usually, you would think that Cadel is the man for 53 kilometres of time trial. Also, last year, he was really, really strong in the last time trial. So you'd assume he can handle it, and come to the conclusion that he's the favourite."
As for the team's own GC contender, Kim Kirchen, who currently sits in 11th position at 8'35 behind Carlos Sastre, Aldag said his final overall result wasn't really important to the team. "Realistically, if he can stay with the best now, he has a chance to finish in the top ten. But his final placing, to be honest, doesn't really matter - whether he finishes eighth or ninth or tenth is not important to us. A top ten finish would be great, that's all."
Kirchen shot into the limelight in the first week of the race when he scored the green jersey of best sprinter, and then the yellow jersey of overall leader. But he lost the lead in the Pyrenees, when the other favourites unveiled their skills, and fell back even more in the Alps.
"Maybe he invested too much energy in the first week; maybe his riding was too aggressive in the beginning," Aldag continued. "On the other hand, to finish sixth while riding defensively all the time wouldn't have been spectacular, either. This way, we had the yellow and the green jersey, and he was up front in many stages. So, if he ends up tenth in Paris - or even if he has a bad day and doesn't finish in the top ten - he definitely rode a good Tour and can be satisfied with himself."
Team Columbia's strategy for the Tour de France worked out, Aldag added. "We had a grand start in the Tour; we wanted to be there everyday in the first ten days. We actually did the complete opposite to CSC. They were completely anonymous in the first ten days, and now they are completely dominating. They were very impressive in the mountains, whereas we really dug in in the first half of the race. You have to make a choice, and ours was to say we want a really good start - and I think we achieved this."