Fifth overall in the Tour de France in 2003 and 2007, Basque Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Nissan) is currently his team’s best-placed rider - in sixth, 3:19 down on Bradley Wiggins (Sky). For now, the veteran stage race expert is refusing to rule out his chances of improving on his position.
“I’m recovering well and I’m noticing that I’m in good shape,” Zubeldia, now in his 14th year as a pro, told Basque daily El Diario Vasco. “I had my doubts about how I’d get on in the time trial, but I went steady until that first little climb, and then upped the pace after that. It went well.”
Sixteenth in the 2011 Tour, he is cautious about comparing his state of form with other years that he took a top-five place, like in 2003 when he was racing with Euskaltel-Euskadi.
“That was nine years ago, and I was a Tour rookie. I had good form, but I had no idea how to tackle the race.
“Now I’m much more experienced, I know what I’m doing and I know where I should be at every point in the race. In general, I’m in a better place than back then.”
Despite a flood of congratulatory telegrams and emails for his performance in the first part of the Tour, Zubeldia recognises though, that he is trying not to raise expectations: "You have to take this on the day by day. This team gives you a lot of confidence," he said.
“I’m three minutes off the top spot, but there’s almost two weeks of racing to go. We’ve got a lot of riders for making attacks - [Andreas] Klöden, [Maxime] Monfort [seventh overall at 4:23] or Fränk Schleck. In general, the team is doing really well.”
Zubeldia's trump card is probably experience. For example, he knows many of the climbs in the race this year and not just from the Tour. He has a second home in the town of Jaca, close to the Pyrenees and he has lost count of the times he has been training over the Tourmalet and Aubisque. Even if the Porte de Bales climb, tackled on stage 17, is “relatively new to the Tour”, he’s been over it “many times, up both sides.”
After an incident-free first 10 days Zubeldia is close to his previous top placing, and his co-leader’s role means that for the first time in many years he is in the limelight.
“I have a good opportunity and I will try to use it. When I changed teams [from Euskaltel after 2008], I got used to racing differently [as a domestique] and now I’m back to my old role again.”
Zubeldia says rather than the second week, the third week in the Pyrenees is where he expects there to be big changes. “There are always surprises at that point in the race, people suddenly crack. If there’s any opportunity to advance overall, I’ll take it.”
Although he’s switched from being leader to domestique and is now back in the role of leader again, one thing hasn’t changed though - his liking for ham and cheese omelettes for breakfast during the Tour.
“We’ve got a chef and within limits of what you can and can’t eat in a race, he cooks us what he likes. And his tortillas are very good.”