By Anthony Tan in Strasbourg
With a multi-talented team of nine, and five Tour stage winners in their own right, Rabobank cycling team's general manager Theo De Rooy has an enviable though difficult task of managing varying expectations and ambitions in the 2006 Tour de France. However, when crunch time comes, the name of Denis Menchov currently sits at the top of the priority list.
"It's obvious that Menchov is the leader of the team," De Rooy told Cyclingnews.
"So when it really comes [down] to it, everybody will be working for Menchov, especially in the last week of the Tour in the mountains. On the flat stages, he will always have riders protecting him, too; we can always have one or two riders taking care of Menchov."
Leading up to the Grande Boucle, the 28 year-old Russian enjoyed a promising ride at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, but tailed off towards the end to finish sixth overall. Nevertheless, the Vuelta a España champion's stage win atop Le Mont Ventoux, coupled with the fact that he was still a little off his best form, gives De Rooy and the team more than hope, it seems.
"I don't think he was 100 percent, because at the Dauphiné, you are always at the stage of building up your form for the Tour de France," said De Rooy.
"The stage where he lost a few minutes, he had a crash and he came back to the car a couple of times asking for glucose, so he was getting a little empty. I think the crash was the final blow... At the foot of the last climb, he immediately lost contact, but then we saw on the second part of the climb he was gaining momentum and was able to follow Hincapie's group, so the loss was less than we expected."
A little uncertainty also surrounds wunderkind Thomas Dekker, who was replaced by Bram de Groot at the last minute. After last Sunday's Dutch national road championships in Maastricht, de Groot was given the nod ahead of Dekker the younger, the former part of the winning move while the latter finished four and a half minutes down on winner Michael Boogerd.
Explained De Rooy: "We asked him after the race, 'How are you feeling, what are you thinking?' - and he was having doubts, so we agreed the best decision was to pull him out [of the Tour de France]. Because I mean, a 21 year-old guy like him, so talented, so motivated, to let him go in such a difficult race... you have to be fresh at the start, ambitious, convinced, eager, eager to work, eager to perform for the team - but if, less than a week before the Tour, you are having your doubts, it's...
"We didn't want to give the signal last week; we thought it would be best to wait until the national championships to see how he was going. If he had been very good [in the road race], then okay, maybe we saw the signs incorrectly - but we didn't see a good Thomas Dekker that day. We also contacted his trainer [Dr. Luigi Cecchini - ed.], and his trainer was also saying it was not the Thomas he knew before."
The eleventh hour change shouldn't have an effect on Menchov's chances in terms of attaining a high overall classification; the question is more how well will he perform in the greatest cycling race of all. De Rooy says he is eager to prove his Vuelta victory was no fluke.
"He certainly wants to prove that his Vuelta victory last year was not because of luck or because of the disqualification of Heras, but that he's just a very good rider.
"On the other hand, Menchov is not a Tour favourite," said De Rooy. "We are not one of the teams expected to take immediate responsibility when there is a situation - there are other teams like CSC and T-Mobile, because they have the big favourites and they have the pressure of the race, day-in, day-out. Our situation's a little bit different."
The full interview with Theo De Rooy will be published soon.