By Hedwig Kröner in Cuneo, Italy
Australian Cadel Evans, currently ranked third on general classification at eight seconds behind Fränk Schleck (CSC) considers his biggest opponents at this Tour to be Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle). Both riders have shown great performances in the time trial, as well as in the mountains, which is why the Silence-Lotto leader rated them as his greatest rivals.
"I saw Denis Menchov yesterday, who had some bad luck when he crashed on the climb," Evans said in a short rest day press conference in the team's hotel. "For him to come back like he did afterwards, and to attack again, just shows that he was very, very good. The next threat on that list is Christian Vande Velde. He's been the most regular of all the riders and also the second strongest, I'd say. He also showed in the first time trial that he was right there. He's just been so consistent, and riding a bit out of the limelight, too.
"In the first press conference we did at the Tour, someone asked me who is favourite for yellow, and I said 'Denis'. I don't think I'd change that now. Moreover, he's the rider I probably know least. I raced head to head with him in the Vuelta last year, but he was on another level there. Christian and I raced a lot against, but actually not head to head in GC."
Evans lost seven seconds to the American in yesterday's mountain top finish in Prato Nevoso, and 27 seconds to the Spaniard. But he explained that he did not get dropped by the pair because of a lack of endurance in the final kilometre to the line. "On the final climb, the road was so wet that I pulled off a bit in the last kilometre, as I was scared of crashing." Seeing Menchov hit the deck earlier on the climb, and the terrible crash of Oscar Pereiro before that was enough to make him ride cautiously.
"Yesterday wasn't my best day at the Tour, but looking at the odds - three against one - losing eight seconds on GC isn't too bad, all things considered. My race yesterday went almost perfectly, but not quite. I got a little bit cold on the descent from the Col Agnel, as it was raining halfway down. I should have been prepared for that. And the crash with Pereiro gave me a huge scare."
Tomorrow's stage to Embrun as well as the epic stage to L'Alpe d'Huez on Wednesday will be decisive, but Evans couldn't decide which suited him better. "The distance, and the amount of climbing make L'Alpe d'Huez the more dangerous of the two stages. But I never had a good day here, that's my problem. I think this will be the third time I race L'Alpe d'Huez, so maybe third time lucky. We hope!"
Evans, who is "still not quite at a hundred percent" after his crash prior to the Pyrenees, admitted his team wasn't as powerful as Team CSC, who will be defending the yellow jersey. "They have a much stronger team than we do. I'm just being honest, no disrespect to my guys. But they have a really strong team and it showed again yesterday: When the selection was made in the final climb and three out of the eight remaining riders were from CSC - need I say more?"
Still, the Australian believes that "it's going to be a close call coming out of the Alps, into the time trial. It is such a close Tour, if not the closest ever with six riders within 49 seconds, so it'll probably go all the way to Paris like that."