Luxembourger Kim Kirchen could well be one of the dark horse contenders for this year's Tour de France. Having finished seventh in the past two Tours, Kirchen hopes to overcome his early season setbacks and ride on to the podium in July.
Kirchen rode himself into the yellow jersey during the first half of last year's event, but the Columbia leader must accept that the 2008 course was better suited for his yellow jersey aspirations because of the lack of a prologue and the uphill sprint finish on day one.
But, while he admits it will be hard for him to win the day one race against the clock, he says that his Columbia HTC squad are 'really strong' in the team time trial and that he thinks it is possible to get time back there. He'd grab the chance of another maillot jaune.
As regards his ambitions for the race, he wants to improve on his previous showings. "If I look at last year, I lost too much time in the uphill," he said. "I lost six minutes on the Alpe d'Huez, I felt bad that time, and I lost four minutes in another uphill finish.
"I also had bad luck as well with a broken wheel. I didn't want to risk the seventh spot on a downhill, so I lost time there as well."
That was the stage which finished on Prato Nevoso in Italy, and cost him one place in the final overall standings. "I climbed at the same speed as the other guys, but ended up losing a minute [actually 1'31 to eventual winner Carlos Sastre - ed.]; in other words, the time I lost by changing the rear wheel," he said. "Counting the time I lost in these ways gives me a lot of motivation. I would have been in the first five otherwise.
"I think this year will be a little bit better in the uphill for me. I trained a little bit more there and I feel more confident on the climbs. So I think I can be really close to the podium. I can't say that I can win the Tour de France, but the first five or even the podium is a goal I have set."
As far as rivals are concerned, Kirchen has three in mind. Contador and Evans are, based on the Dauphiné and what they have done in the past, the two big favourites. He also rates Denis Menchov, after his Giro win. Of the others, he admits that he doesn't know what to expect from Lance Armstrong, and feels that Andy Schleck might lack consistency and have a bad day.
And what about his own team? "After so many victories, after a Tour de Suisse like we had, the morale can't be better," he said, clearly proud of his team’s acheivements. "We are relaxed and we are focused on the first week with Cavendish and also the time trials. The team is very strong now and I think we will already have some success early on... If the Tour goes like last year, I think we can be very, very happy about it."
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