The team time trial in Montpellier was not an easy day at the office for any of the riders involved, but was even worse than usual for some outfits. The technical course was made even harder by some serious gusts of wind, resulting in more than the normal number of crashes. One of the biggest names to go down was Giro d'Italia winner Denis Menchov.
The Rabobank leader slid on the tarmac in the very first corner of the circuit, inside the opening kilometre, and lost another 2:20 to Astana's overall contenders. The team are now clear favourites for the victory in Paris: the only question which could remain is which of them will take home the maillot jaune?
Going into the time trial, Rabobank's sports director Erik Breukink was sure that Menchov had overcome his initial difficulties - he already lost some time to the favourites on the first stage in Monaco. After Tuesday's stage, the Russian sits way back in the classification in 72nd position, 3.52 minutes behind Lance Armstrong, who himself is just 22/100ths of a second from the overall lead.
"He had some difficult moments and lost some time, but now he is motivated and we expect him to get better this week," a confident Breukink told Cyclingnews before the stage. As it turned out, the Russian's woes were only about to begin.
Menchov crashed on his left hand side and suffered some scrapes and bruises on his knee and elbow. "Fortunately, he is not really injured," the team's press officer Luuc Eisenga assured on Tuesday evening.
Going into the collective race against the clock, the team's goal according to Breukink had been "close to the top five. If we achieve this, then we did a very good time trial, losing maybe 30 seconds to one minute to the other GC contenders."
But Menchov's crash disrupted the squad's cohesion. "The rhythm was gone, and the riders had to wait for him. We had 50 seconds on Caisse d'Epargne at the first time check, and never recovered from that," added Eisenga. "We are not satisfied, we did not achieve what we wanted."
Morale at Rabobank was understandably low, as the Russian Giro d'Italia winner now stands only very small chances to make up for the time he lost in Monaco, but also in yesterday's stage to La Grande-Motte.
Menchov was close to making the critical split forced by the Columbia-HTC team on Monday's stage, but missed out in the strong cross-wind because he was on the wrong side of the bunch, according to Breukink. "Denis was in front, but he took the corner on the left side and then he couldn't get back up again - which was why he wasn't in the first group with Lance Armstrong," Breukink explained. "He was with Garate, almost bridged back up but it was not enough."
The American seven-time Tour winner bluntly stated that "today, the Tour de France is finished for some riders. It will be difficult - with no disrespect - to make up that time," very probably thinking of Menchov, but also of Cervélo's Carlos Sastre who ended the day 2.44 minutes down of the yellow jersey.
Nevertheless, the old rule still applies: It ain't over 'til it's over, and these were also Eisenga's thoughts when he added, "If Oscar Pereiro had thought that, too, then he would have never won the Tour," alluding to that 2006 Tour when the Spaniard initially lost 29 minutes on the first mountain stage, only to win the whole event two weeks later.