By Hedwig Kröner in L'Alpe d'Huez
During the rest day in Cuneo, Italy, Rabobank leader Denis Menchov (Rabobank) felt very confident about his general classification aim to win the Tour de France. At the time, he was only 30 seconds back on Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), and Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank) was 11 seconds behind him.
But one day later, the Russian got dropped on the final descent to Jausiers, lost another 35 seconds on Evans and got passed by Sastre on GC. After the last, epic mountain stage to L'Alpe d'Huez on Wednesday won impressively by Sastre, Menchov's overall deficit to the Spanish Sastre was 2'39, with the Australian Evans 1'05 ahead of him.
With Sastre rated a less gifted time trialist than both Menchov and Evans, speculation is now open as to his chances of still reaching the highest podium spot on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, four days from now. The Russian, back to his mysterious ways, did not reveal any of his thoughts on this on the finish line in L'Alpe d'Huez. "Anything is possible because Evans is a time trial specialist," he said. "However, Carlos is also good. We will see, patience."
Menchov felt good throughout the day, with the race made fast and hard by team CSC-Saxo Bank, preparing the road for their biggest coup yet in this Tour de France. Everything was to be decided in the last 21 slopes up to the famous ski station.
"I wanted to attack early in the climb, just like Sastre, actually," said Menchov, who spent a few kilometres chasing back up to the rest of the favourites after Sastre's attack made him blow up. "He left before me, and I had to follow. But then, maybe also because of the pace driven by CSC all day, I exploded. But I held my rhythm and I recovered, fortunately, and came back."
Those at Rabobank see Menchov's remaining form in this third week of racing as a positive sign. Harold Knebel, the team's manager, insisted, "For him to come back like he did gives us hope. We still believe in a possible Tour victory."