By Hedwig Kröner in Digne-les-Bains
When the Tour de France leaves the pre-Alpine thermal town of Digne-les-Bains, things will get serious for the overall classification. The ranking is far from being set in stone, and the most interesting stages are yet to come. Looming near to the holder of the yellow jersey Cadel Evans are a number of final podium contenders - one of which won the Vuelta a España last year. Denis Menchov, although a discreet character, is one of them and shouldn't be underestimated, according to Rabobank team-mate Juan-Antonio Flecha.
Moreover, many of the other GC contenders have been citing Menchov as a top favourite. "Of course - they see that Menchov rides really relaxed," said Flecha at the start of stage 14 in Nîmes. "They see that he is confident about himself."
Flecha looks forward to supporting his team captain in the upcoming decisive stages in the Alps, and didn't hesitate to put himself to Menchov's service, even though today's stage to Digne-les-Bains would have suited the Spaniard's racing characteristics. "Menchov deserves our protection. Tomorrow's stage is an important day for him, for the classification. Today is a nice stage, but I will continue riding like I've done these past few days: Saving energy in case Denis needs it."
Although Flecha usually has a rather aggressive riding style, he currently holds his horses to help Menchov to a possible Tour de France victory. "I'm feeling quite okay; I think I've been performing well," he said on his overall state going into the third week of the event. "I haven't shown myself much until now but that doesn't mean anything. I think I'm climbing quite well. I have a lot of hopes for the next few days, for myself as well as Menchov. I think he's one of the few riders who really has a chance of winning the Tour. He's less than one minute behind Cadel, and an excellent time triallist."