By Hedwig Kröner in Cuneo, Italy
Without intending to, green jersey wearer Oscar Freire revealed Rabobank's general classification strategy at the Tour's second rest day in Cuneo, Italy. Nicely seated under shady pavilions nearby the hotel pool, journalists asked the triple world champion if he was confident to carry the jersey to Paris. The Spaniard replied: "I won a stage and scored more points, and as we hope Denis will be the overall leader after the time trial...". By that time he realised that maybe it hadn't been a good idea to put it this way, and everybody laughed.
Call it a slip of tongue, but Freire's assessment could be pretty close to the reality of the Dutch team's wishes for the rest of the race. Denis Menchov, double winner of the Vuelta a España is not only a respected climber, but even more so a gifted time triallist. Compared to some of his current rivals, this could provide him with the necessary advantage to realise an overall Tour de France victory.
The Russian is currently ranked fourth, 30 seconds behind Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), still the favourite for the top spot on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Asked what sort of margin he needed on the Australian to take the yellow jersey at the race's final time trial, Menchov answered: "If I could choose, I'd prefer three minutes! But if the gap remains as it is, it could be enough. It's only 30 seconds. I feel strong, and I think that he's not much stronger than me in the time trial. After three weeks, everything is possible.
"I think we are in a really good position right now. It's better than it was after Hautacam - almost half a minute less [Menchov was 57 seconds down on Evans after the first Pyrenean mountain stage - ed.]."
The Rabobank leader thus relies on a small margin in front of Evans, which could see him just follow the rest of the favourites during the next two days in the Alps, before the race heads back to the French plains. But he said that he felt good and confident enough to try and drop some of his rivals in the mountains again, explaining that he rated stage 16 to Jausiers as dangerous as the next day to L'Alpe d'Huez, even though the route on Tuesday does not involve a mountaintop finish.