By Gregor Brown and Brecht Decaluwé in Montgailhard with additional reporting by John Trevorrow
The Predictor-Lotto team is thin on mountain domestiques to help Cadel Evans vie for the maillot jaune but Chris Horner and Dario Cioni have promised to do all they can so that their leader reaches Paris in top spot. Stage 14 to Plateau de Beille saw the Aussie come under fire from Contador and Rasmussen and lose time. He is currently in 3'04" back in the overall classification, however, the 55.5-kilometre Cognac time trial still looms.
Evans, who lost almost two minutes Sunday, realized his chances were smaller but he didn't want to give up for the overall win just yet. After the stage, Evans said, "They kept attacking, attacking, and putting me over my limit. I had to stay with them and accelerate with them to show that I wasn't weak but unfortunately, maybe, that was what cracked me, and that was their focus. I just have to stay consistent – it's not over yet. It's my first day of the Tour that hasn't gone as I wanted so I need some time to consider the next few days but every second counts."
Just like Evans, directeur sportif Hendrik Redant didn't want to panic. "Evans ran short against two pure climbers, Contador showed earlier that he is the better climber. We expected this scenario where Rasmussen would attack. He had to do that as he needs at least 2.5 minutes for the time trial," Redant referred to the penultimate stage. "For now, we didn't lose the war," Redant said. "There are still two hard stages coming up and we will see in Paris who the strongest rider is."
The team came to the Tour de France with two types of leaders, Robbie McEwen for the sprints and Evans for the overall. However, a difficult day meant that the sprinter went home and that the team has now shifted its entire focus on a GC push. "We have been protecting Cadel from the beginning," explained Cioni on Sunday morning in Mazamet.
"It the beginning, we also had Robbie to look after, so we were divided in two groups, one with Cadel and one with Robbie. Unfortunately, Robbie went outside of the time cut in the first mountain stage, and since then, the team has really only been for Cadel." Van Summeren, Rodriguez, Vansevenant, Aerts and Hoste also remain in the team of eight.
Evans' solid crono on the roads east of Albi moved him into a brighter spotlight. "Let's say that now there is no more hiding. Up to now there were quite a few race contenders and now there are bit less even if it is still not decided."
The race was further decided by Sunday afternoon when Vinokourov and Valverde dropped out of contention.
"It is difficult, you sort of make plans before the start and then something else happens," Cioni continued on the team's role." Going into the first Pyrenean stage, Sunday, Horner said,. "We are not done with the Tour yet so we don't know. At this moment I would not see any a problem with having the jersey or being one minute back."
The 35 year-old American is in fine form. He was the last Predictor rider to stay with Evans on the Plateau de Beille, and reckoned that the hardest stage will be Monday, the 196-kilometre day that ends in Loudenvielle le Louron.
"My legs are fine, I did not ride hard yesterday [in the time trial], I rode on the low side of hard just to save something for the mountains. I am sure if I really wanted I could do a minute or two minutes in the time trial, but that was not the plan, what was that going to do?
"I think tomorrow is the most threatening, Monday's stage. ... Tomorrow, you will have multiple climbs in a row with a final descent [off the Peyresourde]." Rasmussen had to follow everyone up the climb Sunday, but Monday, "He has to follow them down the hill. You can't cover all of them [the GC men]. You can cover all of them going up the climbs but you can't cover them going down, it is impossible.
"Rasmussen's most dangerous stage has got to be tomorrow's [Monday's] stage because if he goes over the top without any team-mates then he is going to be in trouble."