Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) believes that the Tour de France's first mountain stage to Luz Ardiden will be important but not necessarily decisive in the battle for overall honours.
"It will certainly be important, but it's not going to be the final exam," Basso said after Wednesday's rain-soaked finish in Lavaur.
In spite of a lacklustre build-up to the race, the Italian has managed to avoid losing time in the carnage of the Tour's crash-littered opening half, and lies in 11th place, on the eve of the Tour's entry into the Pyrenees.
Carefully wrapped up against the cold as he spoke to reporters on the steps of his team bus, Basso acknowledged that after the stresses and strains of the seconds won and lost in northern France, Thursday's stage would offer the first firm indication of the general classification contenders' form.
"I think that after the first mountain stage tomorrow, we'll begin to understand who is going well and who is in contention," Basso said. "As for me, I'll be tackling the stage with great attention. It's obviously going to be an important stage."
Amadio warns of Evans danger
Liquigas-Cannondale manager Roberto Amadio told Cyclingnews that Basso can approach the Pyrenean stages with a degree of tranquillity following his solid showing in the Tour's chaotic opening salvoes, and that the onus is on the likes of Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) to attack and recoup their early deficits.
"It's always hard on the first mountain stage, because it's a big change after being on the flat for ten days," Amadio said. "But that said, there are other riders who need to go out and make up time in the mountains, while Ivan can stay calm."
Amadio acknowledged that Basso lacks the ability of some of his rivals to attack on the climbs, but he reckoned that the opening mountain stages in the Pyrenees would allow his leader to gauge his form against the likes of Contador and Andy Schleck, before his stamina comes to the fore in the Alps.
"We'll see tomorrow if he's up there with the Schlecks and the rest," Amadio said. "Ivan's not an explosive attacker but it's not up to him to go on the offensive tomorrow, so he will see how he is compared to the others. His strength is his resistance, so we can wait until the Alps."
Basso endured a troubled build-up to the Tour de France, complaining of fatigue in April, and then suffering a crash at a training camp on the slopes of Mount Etna in May.
"It's true that he certainly wasn't in the best of form in the run-up to the Tour, but you must remember that he needed 18 stitches after that fall and was on antibiotics, so that had an effect," Amadio pointed out. "But he's tough, and he kept his morale intact."
In spite of the presence of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck in the race, Amadio was adamant that for now, Basso is still aiming to wear the yellow jersey in Paris rather than compete for a place in the top three. The Italian finished on the podium in 2004 and 2005, but made little impression last year in his first Tour following his return from suspension for his admitted involvement with the clinic of Eufemiano Fuentes, whose doping operations were uncovered by Operacion Puerto.
Amadio also noted that while many observers expect the Tour to be decided by a third installment of the Schleck-Contador duel of recent years, the in-form Cadel Evans poses a genuine threat to their dominance.
"Everybody is talking about Schleck and Contador, but they forget about Evans sometimes," Amadio warned. "He's been looking very good, he's a real hard man."