By Hedwig Kröner in Pau
Many have wondered about the form of T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden, the former 'de luxe' domestique of Jan Ullrich. Deprived of his leader, the man who finished second in the 2004 Tour de France could now claim the captain's position within his squad, as he is only 50 seconds behind best-placed favourite Floyd Landis (Phonak). But his lead-up to his season objective was far from perfect: On March 21, the tall German crashed heavily during training and broke his shoulder joint into several pieces. Cyclingnews caught up with Klöden at the start of Wednesday's first mountain stage - when the team still had Serguei Gonchar wearing the Yellow jersey.
"My shoulder is much better, actually," he was happy to say. "I don't have any problems anymore - except when I grab something out of the back pockets of my jersey. I feel it more when I'm off the bike; in the evening at the hotel for example."
The injury put the 31 year-old out of order for a while, and for many weeks, his Tour de France participation was even questioned. "I couldn't train for six weeks, so that definitely wasn't a perfect preparation for the Tour. But I hope that the three months that I did have after it were enough to get my form back," he said.
"I'm not at a 100 percent yet, that's for sure. I think I'm at about 90, 95 percent. I hope that I can still increase my form now, in the first mountain stages in the Pyrenees. And that I can get yet even stronger in the Alps."
So what were his chances to take over the role of the leader in the coming days? His teammates Michael Rogers and Patrik Sinkewitz were also very well-positioned on the overall classification, but Klöden had always been rumoured as potentially being the strongest of the three. "I don't think there can be said much about that," he replied enigmatically. "I'll just let my legs do the talking, and then the question of the captain's role will be resolved. I don't necessarily have to be the captain; for me, somebody else could do it, too. I just want to get well up these mountains, and stay up front in the general classification. And then, in the stages 15, 16 and 17 - when it really gets hard - I hope that I can increase my performance further."
To be continued... on the Tour's second rest day in Pau.