By Jean-François Quénet in Tignes
With Alejandro Valverde lying in fourth position, 2'51 down on Michael Rasmussen, and 2006 runner-up Oscar Pereiro about one minute behind (14th @ 3'54), the Caisse d'Epargne team has two cards to play in the second part of the Tour de France. Valverde might have a more fearsome reputation but is mindful of his past performances in the Tour. "I don't know what the third week of the Tour is about," he said on the first rest day in the Alpine town of Tignes. "I've never done it."
In fact, when he rode for Kelme and Communidad Valenciana, his team was no longer welcome at the Tour de France although the whole Fuentes connection wasn't public knowledge at the time in 2004. In 2005, he outsprinted Lance Armstrong in Courchevel but had to pull out because of a tendonitis after the Alps. Last year, he broke his collarbone on Stage 3.
After last year's Vuelta a España where he was overhauled by Alexandre Vinokourov, Valverde isn't ruling out a possible win from the Kazakh star despite his injuries. "He suffered on the last climb but I've seen that very well before," said Valverde of the climb to Tignes on Stage 8. "We were all flat out at the end and it was impossible to drop him off earlier on. We didn't definitely get rid of him but it was the best way of racing."
While Valverde was up the road on Christophe Moreau's wheel, Pereiro was able to watch Vinokourov more closely. "The media have an obsession with Vinokourov who is introduced as the strongest rider of the Tour de France," said Pereiro. "But for now, because of the circumstances of his crash, I reckon Kashechkin and Klöden are stronger than him. They rode very intelligently so far. It's been an important day for them yesterday. Vino is unpredictable."
Caisse d'Epargne and Astana were sharing the same hotel together with Ag2r in Tignes during the rest day, and there is a lot of respect between the Spanish and the Kazakh teams.
"Our intention was to come out of the Alps with the best possible ranking for both [myself and Valverde]," Pereiro explained. "We have made it. Karpets isn't far behind and Guttierez is also in an ambush position. We hope to confirm the good form day after day."
For the past two Tours de France, Pereiro has proven himself to be the strongest rider of the third week, something that Valverde still has to experience.
"The race remains widely open," Valverde said. "Personally, Stage 8 has given me a lot of confidence. But I could see that our rivals are very strong. We'll have to keep our attention high. Moreau is the strongest. There's also Kashechkin who can play his cards. Rasmussen isn't a very good time triallist but we can't let him gain more time uphill."
There is one more Alpine stage before the transition towards the Pyrénées. "It would have been a more dangerous stage with the Galibier if Rasmussen wasn't the leader," predicted Pereiro. "With the likes of Thomas Dekker, Peter Weening, Denis Menchov and Michael Boogerd, Rabobank has a lot of good riders for controlling the race. I bet there will be a breakaway in the Col d'Iseran, at the back, we'll see how it goes."
Directeur sportif Eusebio Unzue gave the final assessment: "The group of favourites race with their minds on the Pyrénées. Apart from Rasmussen's solo ride up to Tignes, something he's used to doing every year now, nobody wants to give it all in the Alps because the Pyrénées are more difficult this year."
Historically, the Pyrénées suit the Spaniards the best.