Among the Tour de France candidates riding the Dauphiné Libéré stage to Mont Ventoux yesterday, there were a few surprises. Only a handful of the favourites took the bull by the horns and gave it their best on the Giant of Provence, while the others either didn't want to burn themselves too much with the Tour just over three weeks away, or simply lacked the form.
Even stage winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank) was surprised that he reached the top first, having started his season only a month ago. But third placed Levi Leipheimer, who took over the leader's jersey, is definitely of a mind to attack the race with the ambition to win. Christophe Moreau, Francisco Mancebo and Jose Azevedo also rode hard on the climb, but the rest were lacking.
Perhaps the most surprising was Floyd Landis (Phonak), who was the best placed GC rider behind Gilbert before the stage, and even had his team riding on the front to bring the break back before the climb. But Landis ended up finishing 56th, losing 9'30 and any hope of the GC win, and it will be his first week-long stage race loss this year. "I had a really bad patch," said Landis to L'Equipe. "Everything was still going well up until the bottom, because I asked my teammates to ride. But, on the first slopes, there were accelerations. Then, out of gas..."
Alejandro Valverde and George Hincapie finished in the top 20, 3'13 behind the winner. They were the best of the rest, as far as Tour GC contenders were concerned, and while Hincapie looked the better of the two, Valverde found it genuinely tough going. "I was not really good. It's the first time I've climbed the Ventoux, and I can say that it's more difficult than the Pyrenean cols that I've done before. Pereiro tried to give me morale by indicating that Landis, Hincapie and Vinokourov were in difficulty. I wasn't able to catch up with him to point out that we were, too."
Besides Hincapie losing 3'13, Discovery's Yaroslav Popovych also lost 5'02, but team boss Johan Bruyneel told Sportwereld that there was no reason to panic. "This was only their first big climbing effort in a race," he said. "This is also the reason why the Ventoux was three kilometres too long for a climber like José Azevedo."
Finally, Alexandre Vinokourov (Würth) was only 81st at 13'10, riding within himself and perhaps taking a leaf out of Bjarne Riis' book in light of the Tour. "I have calmly set my preparation further back," said Vino. "I just rode my own rhythm to the top."
Two more mountain stages remain in the Dauphiné, and the Tour favourites will be watched, and will be watching each other with interest.